Workplace Compassion: A Trend Driven by the Changing Workforce

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Apr 30, 2018

When I first started working in HR in the ‘90s, care and compassion in the workplace were almost foreign concepts to business strategy. Now, for those that practice them, they’re a chief competitive advantage.

I’ve seen this in the way my field has changed. At the start of my career, so much of HR’s focus was dedicated to building heavily-regulated policies around compliance and risk mitigation. Organizations spent a lot of time creating infrastructure around authoritativeness – trying to avoid things like harassment complaints and legal disputes. Protecting the company from threats was more important than creating a company that cares.

Somewhere along the way, those conversations started to shift. We’re still managing risk and building regulations, but our vernacular expanded to encompass things like care, empathy, emotional intelligence and compassion in the workplace.

Cultural fit becomes important

When recruiting questions change, it’s for a good reason, and I’ve even seen this change happen at companies big and small. Interviews used to be heavily oriented to finding the right fit on paper. Questions were akin to a 1920s machine, all function but no form: “Where did you get your degree? What is your technical expertise? What were the precise duties of your past role?” Hard skill qualifications mattered more than the people who earned them.

Today, the reverse is true. It’s all about rooting through behavioral aspects to find out who candidates are as a person. Hiring managers now have to have an intimate knowledge of work teams to determine if a candidate is the right fit or “add,” something they didn’t always have to worry about.

In just a handful of interviews, they’re trying to tease out things like integrity, work ethic, and character, and that’s on top of all those questions about hard skills. Even questions around volunteering activities, hobbies and passions are all fair game. Why? In a job market that’s warring talent, and empowering candidates to be more selective than ever, these questions are a dog whistle. Candidates can now tell if this is a company that cares simply from what you’re asking – and what you’re not. Whereas in the past a candidate might feel they need to settle for less, today they don’t have to because they have options.

Not just a job anymore

And our future leaders have shown they want to be a part of a company that shows that compassion in the workplace. Millennials are the largest generation in the labor force. Contrary to popular assumptions that they’re narcissistic, millennials are actually driven by purpose and a commitment to values. When it comes to work, more than 60% want to work at a company that gives back. Moreover, 81% expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship. To attract them, companies are working to show these commitments up front. Corporations are making public commitments to social responsibility, and reconfiguring internal messaging to contextualize day-to-day work with a broader company purpose.

They’re also sweetening the pot with benefits and guidelines that acknowledge personal needs. Things like flexible and unlimited PTO policies, inclusive paternity and parental leave, and long-term care benefits are now all on the table as organizations show their commitment to our changing workforce.

But it’s not just about bringing talent in the door. When authentic compassion is prioritized in your culture, it permeates every aspect of the company, even how we do our work. Research shows that when team members care for their colleagues, and help them out even at the expense of their own individual performance, the team performs better on the whole. Those team members are less likely to voluntarily leave their groups, too.

That loyalty extends to leaders who are warm, kind, and compassionate. Per research from New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, leaders that exhibit these qualities inspire employees to reach a state called “elevation” that results in employees feeling more devoted and loyal to their bosses.

Driven by social media

There have always been companies that have operated with compassion and care as guiding principles. When exactly these practices became part of the much bigger conversation they are today is harder to pin down. No doubt technology and social media played a big part in the transition. Regardless of whether people wanted it or not, the internet lifted the veil and gave transparency to the ways companies operate. Good leadership and bad leadership were brought to light by social media, and organizations were forced to manage how internal operations looked to the outside world.

Leaders eventually learned to operate in a world where what you do today can turn into a bad Glassdoor review tomorrow. Now the conversations we’re having are different, but not everyone’s on board yet. The leaders who saw which way the wind was blowing started listening to their employees and invested in their needs. The ones who didn’t — those who prefer authoritarianism and fear as leadership tools — will soon learn they need to, or else be outpaced by more compassionate competition.

Looking forward into the great unknown that is the future, the question remains: Are care and compassion in the workplace just nice-to-haves? Can compassionate leadership work if there’s another recession and we have to tighten our belts? A grizzled executive will tell you with certainty that the former is true and the latter is impossible. The evidence shows otherwise, as Barry-Wehmiller made it through the Great Recession without laying off a single employee by instituting a mandatory furlough program. In a blog post, CEO Bob Chapman noted that when business started to pick up again, their “performance increased faster than ever before” because the actions they took during distress strengthened the cultural fabric of the company.

All this is to say, compassion in the workplace is both a means and an end. You can’t control the government. You can’t control politics. You can’t control the stock market. But you can control how you treat the people you manage. And the weight of your actions is what you’ll be left with at the end of the day.

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