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Sep 10, 2020

This year dawned like any other. For many of us, especially those fortunate enough to work in the HR space, things seemed downright rosy. The economy was strong, business was good. The future looked bright…and even predictable.  

However, just below the surface, reality was — and continues to be — different. Many working Americans have trouble making ends meet. Systemic inequality fosters an environment where not everyone has the same opportunities or experiences. Some among us regularly face violence, disenfranchisement, and abuse because of race, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, or physical or mental ability. People seem more divided than ever. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped bring to the forefront some of these realities and divisions. As a result, across the country there have been calls for greater understanding of the lives and experiences of others. In short, there has been a loud and clear call for empathy in all aspects of our lives. 

Empathy Is Essential

At its core, empathy is not a nice-to-have or soft skill. It’s a basic human trait, and it’s fundamental to who we are and who we become. (According to psychologists, empathy is necessary for both social and moral development.) As we move through our lives, empathy helps us interact appropriately and positively with other humans. This is fundamental to the success of our relationships, our communities, and our lives as citizens.

Since most of our waking hours are spent working, experiencing empathy in the workplace is critical. Empathy lays the foundation for a more inclusive social reality, and it may be at the heart of addressing some of the issues that we are currently grappling with as a society and in our workplaces. 

Through our research over the last five years, we’ve learned just how vital empathy is at work, where we constantly interact with others and need those interactions to be constructive. We have also found that it is a foundational attribute of successful organizations. 

An overwhelming majority of employees (93%), HR professionals (97%), and CEOs (90%) believe it’s important for organizations to demonstrate empathy. Eighty-two percent of CEOs think a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy, while 76% of employees see a strong connection between organizational empathy and a more productive and engaged workforce. 

Employees value empathy so highly in their workplace that it informs the relationship they have with their employer and decisions about their own careers: 

  • 92% of employees would be more likely to stay with an employer that empathized with their needs
  • 74% would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer
  • 80% would switch companies to work for a more empathetic employer, with 57% indicating they’d even take a pay cut

A Limited View of Empathy

In the workplace, empathy between people is expressed in their individual relationships — between colleagues and with frontline managers and direct reports. This is how we are generally used to thinking about and defining empathy, as a way we interact with each other, and it may be why empathy is sometimes perceived as a soft skill. 

However, empathy is more than the sum total of employees simply listening to, respecting, and being nice to each other. It is specific, it is actionable, and it can be learned. In the workplace, organizational empathy is demonstrated in certain measurable, tangible ways through the employer’s programs and policies. 

Organizational Empathy

Just what does empathy look like from an organizational perspective? What are some very specific ways employees experience empathy in their workplaces? 

The ways in which employees are supported, along with the structure of the employer organization, are earmarks of empathy. Employees view the following specific actions and programs as emblematic of an empathetic organization that they want to work for:  

  • Offering benefits that align with values, including flexibility and an understanding of the need for work/life balance (92%)
  • Focusing on strong career support and development for employees (89%) 
  • Rewarding and recognizing employees for their contributions (91%)
  • Meeting employees’ needs around holistic wellbeing, including their physical, mental, and financial health (92%)
  • Having diversity in leadership and a focus on inclusion (85%)

Even more than employees, HR professionals view these same items as empathetic, which is important because development, deployment, and management of programs around empathy is generally within their purview. Moreover, communicating and amplifying recognition, wellbeing, diversity and other programs associated with empathy is at least partially within the scope of HR’s function, in partnership with organizational leadership. HR professionals and leaders need to understand how important it is for employees to know programs exist in order for them to have maximum value. 

For example, 86% of CEOs believe their organization openly discusses the importance of mental health with employees. By contrast, 71% of HR professionals believe this is the case. While just 58% of employees agree. Such a disconnect between perceptions can undermine the goals employers are trying to achieve with their benefits and programs. 

Transcending Empathy As a Soft Skill

Leaders and HR professionals overwhelmingly agree that organizational empathy is important. However, crossing the divide between perceiving it as a soft skill and putting empathy into practice may feel challenging. That’s because most CEOs and HR professionals don’t sit down and explicitly think: How can we demonstrate empathy to our employees? Instead, they are appropriately focused on how they can be successful while balancing employees’ needs with those of organization’s. 

When employers take employees into account, they are de facto being empathetic. They are building on a critical human attribute that underpins how we interact with each other. The difference is that the relationship between the employer and the employee is not personal — it’s organizational. So, workplace empathy is expressed in specific, measurable and programmatic ways. 

Employees experience empathy through their interpersonal relationships with co-workers and across different programs in their organizational relationship with their employer. In this way, empathy feeds organizational success whether or not it’s explicitly stated as a starting point for how a company treats its people. 

Even before we were faced with the reality of a global pandemic, empathy was important — both in our individual lives and in our places of work. Our current reality shines a bright light on how we treat each other as individuals and how institutions and organizations — including employers — address the needs of the people that rely on them or comprise them. The most successful leaders and employers are the ones that embrace empathy, whether they do it explicitly or intuitively. It may be time for other institutions to follow suit.