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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2010

"What We've Got Here is a Failure to Communicate"
Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

Older readers may recognize this famous line from the 1967 film "Cool Hand Luke," first spoken by a prison honcho and later echoed defiantly by Paul Newman's character, Luke. However old the film, these words are very relevant to college graduates who seek success in the business world. In this column, I will address the importance of communications skills (broadly defined) and adapting your attitudes and habits to the workplace.

Landrum and Harrold (2003) surveyed business companies likely to hire psychology graduates and asked respondents (N = 87) to rank the importance of 88 skills. Among the top 10 skills related to communications were: listening (ranked first), ability to work with others as part of a work team (second), getting along with others (third), focus on customers/clients (sixth), and interpersonal relationship skills (seventh). When National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) asked its employer members to rate the importance of key skills and qualities that job candidates should possess, the 10 skills receiving the highest ratings from respondents (N = 201) were, in rank order: Communication skills, strong work ethic, initiative, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, teamwork skills, analytical skills, flexibility/adaptability, computer skills, and detail-oriented (NACE, 2010). In short, each study clearly indicates strong communication skills are essential for workplace success.

Before you start to feel complacent because of high grades you received in English and psychology reports written in APA style, continue reading. When the same NACE respondents were asked where job applicants fall short, communication skills led the list of deficiencies (as it has for years); teamwork skills ranked fifth. In a previous report (NACE, 2009), the communications deficiencies described included writing, face-to-face conversations, presentation skills, teamwork, and interpersonal skills. So what we have here is a failure of many graduates to communicate! In addition, failure to follow instructions, to communicate effectively verbally or in writing, and ineffectiveness in teams are among the major reasons new hires are disciplined by their organizations (Gardner, 2007).

Another aspect of communication concerns attitudes, habits, and procedures inherent in the workplace that may differ from your college experiences. Jon Keil, Corporate Operations Manager of The Salem Group (a staff augmentation firm) points out that graduates should expect to change the ways they think about and use technology to communicate. He emphasizes the importance of establishing professional communications skills, and he advises new employees to take the time to participate and learn how work groups interact. Your written and verbal communications must express complete thoughts concisely and you must avoid abbreviated or slang terminology. Be mindful that your e-mails will probably be kept on a server for all to view. Furthermore, because communication contains non-verbal components you must also learn the art of personal presentation and professional dress. You are not in college anymore. Keil notes that many corporations now direct that personal communications via phone, texting, e-mail, and social media are allowed only on personal time, breaks, and lunches—not during normal working hours. Students should also be aware that failure to follow instructions and inappropriate use of technology are common reasons for discipline and termination of new hires (Gardner, 2007).

On a positive note, students of your generation are typically multi-taskers who grew up mastering technology and media skills that organizations seek but which many supervisors do not possess. Your tech savviness could become a strength, but you must first learn to practice corporate standard operating procedures (SOP) and follow instructions even if you know there's a better way to perform a task. Don Kraus, Director of Strategic Accounts at Salem Managed Services advises: "Simply be patient. Let your new boss or employer know that you have good ideas and are eager to share them, but only when the time is right. Tell your boss that you have a lot to learn and you will be working hard every day. After proving that you understand why and how a company operates, then look to share your knowledge and new ideas." Keil adds that Krauss's advice helps the new grad avoid the common pitfall of communicating an "entitlement attitude;" that is, high and often unrealistic expectations regarding work assignments, promotion, salary, vacation, and other benefits. (To that this author adds: Remember that you are not the only person in your company with a college degree!) For example, Mike joined an engineering firm after graduation. As the most junior engineer his assignments were generally routine and unchallenging. When a client, however, submitted a project that required a specific type of video technology, Mike was the firm's only engineer familiar with it. He gladly shared his knowledge and in a manner that did not threaten the senior engineers. Subsequently, although Mike was still the junior engineer, he received more respect, independence, and challenging assignments.

What can you do during college to improve your communication skills?

  1. Become very mindful on a daily basis of how you communicate verbally and non-verbally, whether in the classroom, speaking with an advisor or supervisor, or in your personal relationships. Bad habits require self-awareness and take time to break; good habits create favorable impressions.
  2. Enroll in courses such as technical or business writing, public speaking, small group and interpersonal communications, and others that require major writing, speaking, and group assignments.
  3. Google "Netiquette" (network etiquette) and learn to write e-mails intelligently.
  4. Search your campus for workshops, internships, and service learning opportunities where the diverse components of communication are taught formally or experientially. For example, attend "dress-for-success," personal presentation, and business etiquette events; they could determine if you are invited to that second interview.
  5. Join campus organizations (like Psi Chi) where active participation and leadership experiences strengthen your interpersonal and team skills, sometimes by trial-and-error. It is less stressful to hone your skills in a supportive campus environment than subsequently in a workplace where mistakes can lead to poor evaluations, ostracism, and loss of self-confidence.
  6. Seek a part-time job such as sales or customer service that requires high levels of interacting with people.
  7. Finally, be patient and open-minded with people older than you whose experiences differ from your own, including individuals who do not realize you might be unfamiliar with that famous line from a 1967 Paul Newman movie.

Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out of the company? Factors that influence the promoting or firing of new college hires (Research Brief 1-2007). Retrieved from Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute website.

Landrum, R. E., & Harrold, R. (2003). What employers want from psychology graduates. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 131-133.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2010). Job Outlook 2010. Bethlehem, PA.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2009). Job Outlook 2009-How you fit into the tight job market. Retrieved from

Additional Resources
Smith, W. S. (2008). Decoding generational differences: Fact, fiction ...or should we just get back to work? Retrieved from Deloitte Development LLC website:

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.\

Copyright 2010 (Volume 15, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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