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HR Soft Skills: What Is Non-Engagement + Examples

HR Soft Skills: What Is Non-Engagement + Examples

We all are tempted to do it: that frustrating person approaches you, complaining about their newest topic of distaste, and you have the strongest urge to say, “SHUT UP! ENOUGH ALREADY!” 

Regardless of how cathartic such a response might be, it’s not the most “HR” way to handle exiting a conversation you don’t want to participate in. Whether the conversation is annoying, frustrating, senseless, redundant, or whatever else, HR must remain calm and collected (barring some circumstances). However, calm and collected don’t have to be spoken to be felt. Ideally, you don’t have to respond verbally.  

But it takes a while to get to that point. And that is where the soft skill of “non-engagement” comes into play. 


Recap: What Are the 7 HR Soft Skills?

Soft skills are interpersonal and relationship-building skills and character traits that help you interact effectively with your workforce.  

In contrast, hard skills are measurable abilities and skill sets you can demonstrate effectively. They are often job-specific. For example, implementing an HRIS for your organization is an applicable hard skill an HR professional may value. 

Many consider soft skills more difficult to teach. Think of your friend who is great at changing the subject to prevent a brewing argument. These are examples of soft skills that many use every day. However, while many soft skills are important, some are particularly crucial for HR Parties of One.  

You can use this mnemonic phrase to help you remember the soft skills most critical to HR

Rose’s Retriever, Buddy, Regularly Licks Everyone’s Faces!  

This easy-to-remember phrase matches up to the 7 HR soft skills: Redirecting, Reframing, Boosting, Reminding, Listening, Engagement (NOT!), and Figure-it-out factor.  

We will cover each of these soft skills in depth in other blogs. For now, let’s focus on non-engagement.



What Is Non-Engagement?

Non-engagement is when you present a calm and collected mein so you can gently avoid whatever conversation or interaction is taking place. You may have many reasons for, in less nice terms, ignoring something someone says to you. Let’s consider some times you may ignore, or disengage, from someone: 

  • If they ask you something that they absolutely know the answer to, hoping for a different answer.  
  • If they ask you something they SHOULD know and can easily find the information without your help.
  • If they begin a conversation about things that you shouldn’t comment on as an HR professional that doesn’t involve your role whatsoever, such as how to hire a personal accountant or the best schools in the area. 
  • If they attempt to seek your help for something outside the scope of your role but within your area of knowledge. For example, if a new hire asks you for the best benefits plan when they should be directing that question toward your organization's benefits broker.   

For some of these, you may respond with a quick use of redirection, another important HR soft skill. A quick sentence redirecting someone to show that their request is unreasonable is fine—but you shouldn’t need to do that every time. If one response is good enough, then it’s time to not engage on the topic. Ideally, you should never have to respond verbally because your intent is clear by not engaging. However, if it were handled the ideal way each time, I wouldn’t have written this blog.   


Why Is Non-Engagement a Skill… All You Have to Do Is Not Respond

If non-engagement is worth its own place in the mnemonic and a whole blog devoted to it, then how can it be narrowed down to “just don’t respond”?  

Because the soft skill of non-engagement is not successful the second you put it into practice. Much of your work developing your skills at non-engagement involves training your workforce gently to recognize that you’re disengaging from the topic or are actively choosing not to respond to a statement or inquiry.  

Non-engagement seems straightforward. The hard part is using it so consistently for the same situations that your workforce can slowly but surely recognize it. The hardest part is committing to non-engagement so that it doesn’t even invite further conversation.

For example, if someone emails you asking, “Why does Miranda get her paystub emailed to her?” you can just… not respond, because the person asking should know from the Culture Guide they read upon hire that your HRIS allows for that option if they so choose. Also, that’s a bit of an inane question to ask of an HR Party of One, and the goal of the consistent use of the non-engagement soft skill is to teach your workforce the topics you won’t engage with so they can anticipate your response (or lack thereof) and know if their question is worth asking. 

Let me reiterate that point: the goal of consistently using the non-engagement soft skill is to teach your workforce the topics you won’t engage with so they can anticipate your response and know if their question is worth asking.  

You could respond to this question every time with a quick, “The details on how to receive your paystub via email are in the Culture Guide, Part II, Section B.” It would certainly direct that person to the information they seek, but it commits a potentially egregious error: responding verbally opens the floor to a conversation. 

Realistically, how many people can you name in your workforce who will give that quick response a thumbs up and then drop the conversation? Probably not many. They are going to ask:

    • “How do I get to the Culture Guide?” If you don’t use an HRIS like BerniePortal to host your Culture Guide (and all other often-used documents) in an easily accessible spot, you may need to hunt around and send them a PDF.   
  • “Can’t you just do it for me? I’m in the middle of something.” In the middle of something enough to email you in the first place, but it’s fine—an HR Party of One surely has nothing else to do, right? (Spoiler: WRONG!) 
  • “Wait, what’s the Culture Guide?” I think you’re okay to not respond to this one.

If you open the door to further conversation, the momentary time sink turns into a time sinkhole. While there are cases in which a simple, quick response might be your go-to, think of situations where someone may run rampant with follow-ups and hypotheticals. How much time do you spend on that conversation, and how much of it is digging a deeper hole? 

So let’s cover how you can implement non-engagement in a way that firmly shuts the door on more conversation and builds your workforce’s recognition.  



How to Not Engage Example 

Erik isn’t a problem employee, per se. But he certainly has a way with words—he uses a lot of them, all the time, to ask his HR pro things he should know. His HR Party of One, Claudio, is tired of Erik’s constant questions. Claudio knows the second he sits down in his office each morning that Erik will pop in with a question, and by noon, he usually has several emails burning a hole in his inbox. 

None of Erik’s questions are terribly urgent, but they are, without fail, about things Erik learned before. It isn’t Claudio’s responsibility to hold Erik’s hand all the time, and it takes up too much of his day to answer Erik’s questions. And, even if Claudio doesn’t respond, Erik just asks again! Simply ignoring him isn’t enough; Claudio needs to use the soft skill of non-engagement intentionally. 

Erik: Hey man! You have a moment?  

Claudio: Good morning, Erik. I’m really busy today, so let’s be quick if possible. 

[Notice Claudio doesn’t say yes immediately. Not everyone needs such firm non-engagement; it’s a case-by-case basis. But with context, we already know Erik will waste Claudio’s time with something he should know. So while the firm attitude seems rude, remember that you’re setting an important boundary when you choose not to engage.] 

Erik: Would you mind telling me the day open enrollment begins and how we access it  

all, again? I forgot and can’t find the email with information. 

Claudio: I recommend searching in your email for it, Erik.  

[Claudio is building on the soft skill of redirection to tell Erik to look in his email. Another soft skill, figure-it-out factor, comes into play here. Unfortunately, not everyone has that innate ability to find their own answers; Erik is one of the people who needs an extra push. However, it isn’t your job to provide that push. A quick, direct comment to search in his email is enough.] 

Now, Claudio needs to be super short and disengaged whenever Erik has a question like this. You may be thinking—“But that’s mean. 

The biggest problem you may have with non-engagement is that it feels rude. Much of the strategy lies in a quick response as the foundation, supported by not responding to further conversations on the topic.  

Unfortunately, as an HR Party of One, you already know that doing someone a favor once and providing extra guidance is an extremely slippery slope. Erik would never leave Claudio alone if Claudio were open and friendly every time Erik approached with a question. But that doesn’t mean Claudio has to be closed off and unfriendly! Much of non-engagement is softened by body language. 

So, you see the conversation between Erik and Claudio without nonverbal cues. Let’s evaluate how it looks when those are added in. 

Erik: Hey man! You have a moment? 

Claudio, smiling and leaning back in his chair: Good morning, Erik. I’m really busy today,  

so let’s be quick if possible.  

Erik: Would you mind telling me the day open enrollment begins and how we access it  

all, again? I forgot and can’t find the email with information. 

Claudio, reaching back to his keyboard to resume working and therefore ending the conversation: I recommend searching in your email for it, Erik.  

It may seem very minor, but non-engagement is a soft skill that is directed by your attitude toward the conversation. If you smile softly and keep open body language until you need to disengage firmly, you can absolve some of the “rudeness” you may worry about. But don’t worry too much. Sometimes your role may require you to be rude. And that’s okay!   

You may wonder, “Okay, great, but what about if they email or message me?” No worries; implement the same concepts. How you convey tone in written communication can go a long way toward maintaining relationships. However, being short and to the point may seem less friendly to someone who believes they are asking a simple question, but it saves you a lot of hassle. 

Continuously engaging with situations, conversations, or other things that take up your time needlessly is like putting a high-speed sleigh at the top of a tall, slippery slope. You’re an HR Party of One: you know that people will ask more and more of you, consuming the day, unless you can firmly set boundaries to prevent interruptions and encourage figure-it-out factor development.  

By not engaging, you commit your precious time and energy to the projects that improve your workplace. Non-engagement can almost be reduced to a common phrase, “Choose your battles wisely.”  

The times you need not to engage aren’t always battles (I hope!), but you can consider it a battle for your time and capacity. And if you’re on the precipice of that slippery slope, it may only take one well-intentioned engagement to nudge you into free fall. And how will you advance on the HR Hierarchy of Needs if you’re going mach speed down that slippery slope?

With that in mind, remember that you can be rude, or standoffish, or whatever employees usually say about HR. Your role as an HR Party of One isn’t to be the friendliest, bubbliest helper in the workplace. Skilled non-engagement is critical to fulfilling your role as the future-thinking organizational success orchestrator. 


Additional Resources

You can stay informed, educated, and up to date with important HR topics using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop shop for HR industry news
  • HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
  • Resource Library—essential guides covering a comprehensive list of HR topics
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics


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