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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 17 * September 13, 1999

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Don’t Take the ‘Human’ Out of Communications

“Thank you for calling the county government. Please choose from one of the following 27 options. If you are left-handed and under 5’8,” please press 1. If your mother’s maiden name starts with a ‘k,’ please press 2.”

Welcome to the nightmare of technology gone awry as it applies to interpersonal communications. It is absolutely true that wonderful tools, such as voice mail, e-mail, and the Internet have opened new doors and new opportunities for public administration. The Human Resources Department in Broward County, Fla., alone, receives nearly 60,000 “visits” to its Web site per month.

We seek ways to cut costs, downsize and handle more business with fewer resources. Technology has been marketed to us as the obvious answer. Install a voice mail system and eliminate the receptionist. Let a person leave a message and save time by knowing what call was missed at any given moment. That way, you also get to choose which calls to answer and which calls to ignore. However, are these really “efficiencies”?

There is a danger in all of this for government and, indeed, for human relations. The danger, ironically is that in harnessing these machine-driven communication tools, we actually remove the “human” from human relations and interpersonal communications. We frustrate one another and we complicate the lives of our colleagues at the office and our customers needing service.

For the government agency that serves a dependent population with many people who are frail, elderly, very young, or physically or mentally disabled, the over-reliance on technology for communication becomes not only frustrating, but it can become dangerous.

Poor communications or the lack of communication frustrates people. Frustration leads to anger and estrangement. Government is already viewed by a small minority — but a growing minority — as the cause of all that is going wrong in their particular lives. This is not only an element in the militia movement, but this feeling of estrangement plays a role in workplace violence, the tax revolt, government by initiative and referendum and more.

On a much less dramatic scale, the dependence on technology in lieu of humanity may permit those who keep statistics all day to trumpet the agency’s success in handling thousands of additional calls per month. However, most callers do not wish to be “handled” by the government. They need information. They have questions. They have hopes and frustrations which government should address effectively.

Instead of substituting “Robby the Robot” for the office receptionist, the HR Doctor offers some suggestions:

  • Communication with the public should not be thought of as an inconvenience or an annoyance for office staff. As a matter of fact, it should be a “core competency” for every public agency no matter how large or small and no matter what type of business the agency provides.
    Instead of short-changing or undervaluing the role of the receptionist as the “voice of the office,” management should insist that the receptionist position be staffed with a person who cares about effective communication with the caller and cares that every call be routed with polite and respectful efficiency.
  • Use voice mail sparingly. The HR Doctor believes that the best way to use voice mail is to never route someone automatically to it without offering them a choice. A receptionist equipped with a switchboard phone showing who is in or who is on the telephone should ask callers whether they wish to leave a voice mail message, call back later or have a message taken by the receptionist.
  • Organize the telephone system so that only one voice message greets the caller. Imagine the great public relations benefit derived from a call to a staff member who is greeted by a recording saying, “I am either on the phone or away from my desk, press ‘0’ for assistance.”
    Two or three levels of such messages are enough to make the caller think terrible thoughts about the agency. This is especially true when the purpose of their call is to talk about an overdue tax payment, how to handle a traffic ticket, determine if their dog is at the animal shelter or the status of their building permit.
  • It would not be a bad idea for supervisors and managers to occasionally sit at the receptionist’s desk and greet the public. Are its incumbents thanked and appreciated for the very key role they play? Or, is that front-counter position akin to an assignment to a gulag in Siberia? Is it the assignment from hell that no one wants? Is it used as a pasture for the “grazing” of staff members with behavior or performance problems? If this is the case, stop it immediately and correct it.
  • As you personally make calls to other agencies, identify the people and the practices that represent the best examples you can find of how to treat callers. Perhaps, arrange for that receptionist to be a guest trainer in your agency. Topics such as leading a workshop to respond to irate callers and how to defuse hostility could be covered. The Employee Assistance Program in your agency can help, too.
  • Ensure that there are understood protocols in place for handling emergency calls. These may range from an anonymous bomb threat to a family emergency for one of the employees. The receptionist should not respond by saying, “I am going to lunch now.”

In the case of one agency, a bomb threat and an evacuation were reported on a voice mail which was not heard for over an hour. This should never happen.

The HR Doctor calls many agencies. Hardly any message is more frustrating than one that begins with, “Your call is important to me.” If it was so important to you, why weren’t you there to receive it? Why aren’t I, as the caller, able to enjoy a brief moment of human interaction in a world where such contact is becoming more and more rare? As a manager, be aware of ways that you can put the “human” back into human relations and human resources.

You are welcome to contact the HR Doctor by e-mail at If you do, you will find that I actually write back or call you directly if you leave me a phone number. Best wishes.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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