Empathy and HR: The Practical Connection

January 24, 2022

One of the challenges of working in HR is the dual responsibility of enforcing policy and law along with being empathetic.

By John Ford, Founder and Owner of The HR Mediation Academy and HR West 2019 Speaker*

How well you balance the important and seemingly contradictory roles of having a stick and also a carrot, goes a long way to determining how you are perceived.

When asked, “What do you really think about HR in your organization?” survey respondents for a past HR West presentation were critical:

  •  “My understanding of HR is that they exist to prevent employees suing the company.”
  • “I would never be honest with HR. They would find a way to punish me!”
  • “HR remains a reflexive and aggressive defender of management and corporate policies.”
  • “They need to put the human back in HR!”

HR, it seems, values compliance but lacks empathy!

In 2014, writing in the Harvard Business Review, Wharton Professor Rita Gunther McGrath suggested that “we’ve seen three “ages” of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

Whether or not we have formally arrived at the age of empathy, what we do know is that more and more people are talking about the importance of empathy, especially for HR.

SHRM recently posted a blog on their website explaining why empathy is  a critical leadership skill and argued that empathic leaders are more effective (January 2018: Why Empathic Leaders are more effective)

Oprah Winfrey agrees: “Leadership is about empathy!” 

Each year, Buisnessolvers conduct a survey on empathy in the workplace. In 2018, 87% of CEO’s agreed that there is a connection between performance and empathy. (State of Workplace Empathy, Buisnessolvers, 2018)

In other industry studies, empathy is seen as the leadership skill “most strongly and consistently linked with performance.” (DDI World Report, 2018)

Beyond performance, research by Dr Helen Reiss at Harvard Medical School, found that “empathy promotes prosocial behavior.”

While our appreciation of the value of empathy is growing, our ability to be empathic may be lagging.

Barak Obama noted this when he said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit-our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through those that are different from us.”

Barak Obama’s concern about our ability to be empathic is confirmed by this statistic from DDI World:

 “Only 40% of leaders are able to demonstrate empathy effectively.”

To be effective, leaders need to guide their own organizations to be empathic without neglecting the importance of compliance.

Many CEO’s would struggle defining at a practical level what they and their organization can do to be more empathic. Thoughtleaders, Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman suggest that empathy involves a 1-2-3 sequence:

“In cognitive empathy we recognize what another person is feeling. In emotional empathy we actually feel what that person is feeling, and in compassionate empathy we want to help the other person deal with his situation and his emotions.” Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed, 2003.

“In today’s psychology, the word ‘empathy’ is used in three distinct senses: Knowing another person’s feelings; feeling what that person feels; and responding compassionately to another’s distress. These three varieties of empathy seem to describe a 1-2-3 sequence: I notice you. I feel with you, and so I act to help you.” Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, 2006.

In a nutshell, it’s not enough to just sense the other emotionally and understand their point of view cognitively: there is an expectation that we will act with compassion.

We see this sequence expressed in Roman Krzaric’s definition: “Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions. (Roman Krznaric, Empathy, 2014)

But what action?

Businessolver’s State of Empathy Report found that “90% of employees, HR professionals and CEO’s view face to face conversations and team meetings as the most empathic ways to communicate.”

It’s not just meeting face to face, it’s how we conduct the meetings with empathy that matters. Empathic leaders are good communicators who listen well. They are attuned to the feelings and needs of their employees with whom they maintain positive relationships.

Employee’s also want their employers to know what is important to them and take compassionate action, showing they care in tangible ways.

The following 7 practices are identified in the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy Report for their potential to build empathy:

  1. Time off for family/medical issues
  2. Offering flexible working hours
  3. Recognizing employee milestones
  4. Paid maternity/paternity leave
  5. Health insurance, and 401(k) contributions
  6. Embrace Diversity
  7. Use smart technology

Of interest in the report was the identification of what employee’s consider to be empathic collegial behavior. It includes: going the extra mile to help a colleague meet an immediate deadline; advocating for a colleague; and talking face to face instead of emailing.

Ensuring that your organization is compliant is important. And so is being empathic. Finding the balance is never easy. As a matter of policy or law, the situation may not be up for negotiation, however, there is always an opportunity to be empathic.

Consider offboarding.

Caroline Vernon shares how conversations about parting (offboarding reframed) are fraught with danger:

“Providing a way for the employee to get back on their feet as quickly as possible becomes crucial in parting peacefully with the employee all while protecting and preserving the employer brand.”

Watch (video): Don’t Let Them Leave Mad_ Offboarding with Empathy.

Vernon encourages “outplacement as an empathic solution.” Outplacement is a benefit given to exiting employees for expert advice on resume preparation, job search strategy and can include help negotiating a job offer.

Knowing how to be empathic at a practical level, and what actions are viewed as empathic, is the key to organizational effectiveness!

So that HR can be trusted to uphold policy and law fairly, and seen to be empathic, your success will depend on your ability to balance the important, but contradictory roles of compliance and empathy. You must do this a manner that will leave you with peace of mind and a sense of pride for your work and profession.


About John Ford
Founder and Owner, The HR Mediation Academy
*HR West 2019 Session: Empathy and HR: The Practical Connection
Wednesday, March 13, 2019.  10:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Register for HR West: http://www.hrwest.org/Register

John Ford Photo
John Ford is an experienced mediator and soft skills trainer. The author of Peace at Work: The HR Manager’s Guide to Workplace Mediation and the founder of the HR Mediation Academy. John has provided training to thousands of employees at all levels in the workplace, across a wide range of industries. His workshops focus on the development of soft skills, such as communication, negotiation, facilitation, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, customer service and mediation. John teaches negotiation at UC Berkeley School of Law, mediation to graduate Business and Psychology students at Golden Gate University, and organizational collaboration online through Creighton University.

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