Listen Up! How to be a Good Listener in the Workplace

Listening is an underrated HR skill. We spend lots of time learning the latest employment laws, improving our recruiting skills, drafting policies and providing employment data to management. Sometimes it is easy to forget that a big part of working in HR is being a good listener. So, in today’s post, we will at this often underrated skill.


My brother is a year younger than me. My mom told me that I used to look for a bottle to stick in his mouth whenever he started crying when he was an infant. He made his needs known in the only way a baby knows how, and I listened and responded to his concerns in the best way my toddler brain could manage. Either that, or, in true big sister fashion, maybe I just wanted him to shut up. Regardless of my motivation at the time, this was an early form of learning how to listen and responding to someone else’s needs.

Fast forward a few decades to my career in HR, which often involves employees venting and complaining about situations in the workplace. If only it was as easy as giving them a bottle and sending them on their way. But workplace problems are rarely simple, and there is not always a straightforward solution. When I find myself on the receiving end of an employee’s complaint, it is very tempting to jump in and try to fix the problem. The big sister side of me wants to do that, but I also know that trying to solve things too quickly may mean that I miss hearing what someone really needs.

The best way to react is to be an active listener. Nod your head, respond with a word or two as appropriate, but otherwise just listen. Depending on the issue, it may be a good idea to take some notes, especially if you anticipate that the issue could turn into something that warrants an investigation. While listening, it is important that you do not immediately start figuring out how to respond. Doing so risks missing something important because your brain is too busy thinking of what you are going to say.


If there is not a clear and easy solution, ask they employee, “How would you like me to help you solve this?” I have been surprised at how many times someone has answered, “Nothing right now. I just wanted to be heard.” When this is the response, I usually close the conversation by letting the employee know they can come talk to me if further issues arise. I also add a note to my calendar to follow up with the employee in the near future. This lets the employee know that I took their complaint seriously.

Of course, the employee may want more from you. This could mean scheduling a meeting with a coworker they are not getting along with or sharing feedback with a supervisor on the employee’s behalf. Regardless of what action you take, it is again important to follow up with the employee after you take action to see if the problem has been resolved.


Sometimes an employee’s problem is beyond the scope of what we can do as HR professionals. It is a good idea to have a list of community resources to provide employees. This should include things like counseling services, shelters, support groups and other resources for those in need. Many social service agencies have a directory of resources that they use for referrals.

At one of my previous HR jobs, I was able to get a copy of a directory from a local suicide prevention program that also provided me with pamphlets about their services, which I left in the break area for employees. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, they can also be an excellent resource in helping employees find professional help.

During my time in HR, I have had several employees come to ask about time off because they were leaving an abusive partner. Prior to working in HR, I worked at a domestic violence shelter, so I have experience working with victims of domestic violence; however, when it comes to dealing with these issues in the workplace, I know my limitations. I was not going to be able to find shelter for these women and help them through the ensuing challenges that come with leaving an abusive relationship and building a new life, but because I was familiar with our community’s resources, I could help connect them with an organization that could provide the appropriate services.


When I train new employees about customer service, I often say that being a good listener is the best kind of service one can give when faced with a complaining customer. When something goes wrong, people often want the situation fixed, but they also want to be heard. In HR, employees are our customers, and the same basic lesson applies.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

Reader Interactions


  1. Sabra says

    I love this topic and the way you articulated this in the HR world. It’s so accurate and really good guidance for any HR professional, manager, coworker, etc. awesome post, Stephanie! Miss you!



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