When Leonor Cabrera, MBA, noticed that students were missing the emotional side of HR, she put a spin on role-playing scenarios to help situations feel real.
Dean of Business, Design & Workforce, Cañada College, Redwood City, California
MBA in Finance and International Business, BS in Accounting
When your profession involves helping employees resolve interpersonal issues, a sense of empathy is advantageous. So is the sense to expect the unexpected.
Yet these are issues that Leonor Cabrera, MBA, Dean of Business, Design & Workforce at Cañada College, saw were not being addressed with students of human resources.
As in many areas of business education, Cabrera says, HR methodology is conventionally taught using case studies, which students read, analyze, and respond to with proposed solutions. Cabrera, who had previously worked as an HR manager in the business sector, was concerned that this approach did not adequately address the soft skills needed in dealing with employees as people.
Teaching soft skills through HR cases
Not only did Cabrera see a lack of empathy in the students’ case write-ups but she also heard about it outside of the classroom. “Advisory panels have cautioned our instructors that business students typically lack soft skills,” Cabrera says, “not just in HR but across all management and communication courses.”
So she started seeking a solution that would help humanize the HR coursework.
“Instead of just reading the cases, I want them to feel the cases,” she says. “It’s easy to read about someone who [reported] being sexually harassed. It’s another thing to face a person who is crying and telling you how the issue is affecting his or her personal life. I wanted to provide students with the experience of one-on-one interaction with the individual dealing with a real issue.”
The answer, it turns out, was only a notecard (or a handful of notecards) away.
Making case studies come to life
Cabrera is the real deal when it comes to HR: Having worked at a number of companies, she has more than 10 years of experience as a controller, and another five in the dual role of controller/HR director. So, when it was time to implement a solution to help her students experience the true nature of being an HR professional, she drew from her own experience—and a stack of index cards.
Her idea was to create a simulation exercise—a role-playing scenario—where the students would play the part of an HR representative, and she would be the employee bringing an issue to their attention. “I believe role playing for mock interviews works extremely well,” Cabrera says, “so I took that simulated experience and applied it to my students’ [HR scenarios].”
To record each interaction, Cabrera positioned a camera over her shoulder, facing the student. As for what exactly their interaction entails? That is where the cards come in.
Cabrera has written different scenarios on a stack of index cards, each of which is based on a real-world example—either derived from her own experience or from conversations with other HR directors. The student selects a card at random at the start of the exercise, which also adds to the real-world feel—rarely do HR representatives know about an employee’s issue in advance.
“The course is intended to help people take the first step into HR management, either because they were aspiring to that job or because they needed to understand HR issues as general managers.”— Leonor Cabrera, MBA
Course: MGMT 204 Managing Employees Effectively
Course description: An overview of the effective techniques used to manage employees in the workplace. Understanding and predicting behavior in the workplace from self-knowledge, emotional intelligence, values, and ethics to organizational structure, communications, motivation, diversity, teamwork, networking, negotiating, power, and politics. Globalization of work, TQM, conflict resolution, continuous improvement methods, leadership, and time management are covered.
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Lesson: A role-playing game with a surprise twist
There are four key goals to Cabrera’s role-playing scenarios: Show the importance of empathy; reinforce the importance of being prepared for the unexpected; teach active listening; and give the students the experience of dealing with sensitive situations.
Though her scenarios focus on HR, Cabrera feels this approach can be effective in any course that is preparing students for a role that requires interpersonal interaction. “This technique would work in any situation where soft skills matter,” she says.
Here is how she brings this lesson to life.
Deal with gritty reality
Cabrera makes it a point to keep students on their toes by including scenarios that are … unexpected. One case presents a man who complains of being watched by a coworker while using the urinal. “That’s something that actually was presented to me early on in my career, and I didn’t know what to do,” Cabrera says. In another case, an employee complains that a team member is viewing child pornography in his cubicle.
Most of Cabrera’s other examples are more mundane. “Body odor—that’s one that always comes up when you get HR managers together to swap stories,” Cabrera notes. But she feels it is important for students to understand the full range of HR issues.
Spring it on them
The situation is always chosen spontaneously—the student selects a card randomly from the deck of options, which Cabrera spreads out, face down, on a table. “I think the element of surprise makes the simulation more realistic, because you never know, when someone makes an appointment, what they’re going to come through the door with,” she says.
Maintain the upper hand
In simulations, Cabrera always plays the role of the employee so that she can control the direction of the conversation and cover all the important points. “There was always something I needed the student to realize in each situation,” she explains. “I’m not an actor by any means,” she adds. “But I played the part and was able to bring out the individual facing an issue with some depth.”
Focus on outward appearances
The measure of effectiveness for an HR manager is not simply whether he or she came up with a satisfying solution to a problem. The quality of the interpersonal interaction is critically important, too. For that reason, Cabrera records the role-playing interaction with a smartphone camera that is set up behind her shoulder and focused on the student.
“Having the video allows the student to hear herself and to see her facial expressions during the interaction,” Cabrera says. This is largely about unconscious bias—a personal belief that may be a barrier to feeling empathy toward the employee’s situation. “It’s important for an HR manager to have a good poker face,” she says.
Video can also help students identify unconscious habits that could be problematic in sensitive, face-to-face discussions. “I used to have a habit of shaking my head up and down during stressful conversations,” Cabrera admits. “I discovered that when I was videotaped during job interviews.”
Discuss, but do not critique
After each simulation, which is done one-on-one between Cabrera and the student, the student has the option to have the class review the video and discuss alternative ways the individual could have handled the situation. So that the conversation does not devolve into criticism, Cabrera insists that peers make only constructive suggestions. The strategy has worked well. “Students’ self-critiques were much harsher, certainly, than my own comments,” she says. “The other students were very gentle with each other.”
Why make this review optional? “There were a few students who felt they totally blew it and knew exactly what they had done wrong, and they didn’t want to see it again,” Cabrera says. “I respected that.”
As dean of Career Education, Cabrera no longer teaches classes, but she formerly taught the course in HR management during the summer.
Most of her students were adults, many with degrees or certificates, coming back to deepen their skills. “We are in a diverse area, and with that diversity come diverse problems,” Cabrera observes. “In addition to being managers, [my students] had to deal with a wide range of issues that might be important to their direct reports. They have to realize that they’re not just doing their jobs; they are also counseling and advising employees, and at the same time protecting their companies.”
Cabrera offers this real-world scenario to demonstrate the effectiveness of her simulation-based teaching strategy:
She recalls role-playing a situation with a young student who was a native Spanish speaker. Cabrera acted the part of an older employee who was complaining about a younger peer. The older individual found her coworker’s personal habits—her music, her Latina slang—distracting and unnecessary.
“My character came in as a curmudgeon who wanted this young person fired,” Cabrera relates. “The student—and the whole class [thought this] was amazing—she listened. She always took a deep breath before responding. And she answered with empathy. She just blew us all away. It was as though she’d been doing this for years, even though she had had no experience in human resources. She had only ever worked in food service, but she wanted to [advance] to the next level.”
The student talked Cabrera’s character down and explained that the young worker had skills that the older worker did not have, such as skills with technology. “She had an innate gift, and we all got to see it and learn from it,” Cabrera says. “Even though she had concerns about her accent, the class encouraged her to go into management.”