When reading the headline, many of us may have instinctively thought, “Of course I show empathy!” But the reality is that employees often don’t feel they’re treated in ways that show empathy. The employer-employee relationship is often seen by employees as more adversarial than supportive.
Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another … ”[i] Employers may feel as though they understand an employee’s situation, but unless they’re actually being sensitive to it and showing that sensitivity, it likely won’t come across that way.
Here are some ways employers can act that are more empathetic toward employees.
- Show trust. Trust is a pathway to showing empathy. Trusting that employees really are sick when they say they are is the first step in showing empathy toward their situation, for example.
- Believe the employees, and act accordingly. This item really is a continuation of the previous one. Here’s another example: When someone requests Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, instead of reacting in a way that implies the person may be exaggerating or perhaps ineligible, train everyone involved in the process to assume the employee is in the right while still being consistent in the requirements. Taking the first step of assuming the employee is correct and needs FMLA leave changes the interactions from requiring “proof” to simply helping someone complete the steps to get what he or she needs.
- Craft benefits in ways that help employees live their life well—ways that empathize with the common issues that employees face, like illness, child care, commuting stress, etc.
- Think before disciplining. Before implementing disciplinary or corrective actions, consider the possibility that the employee may be dealing with difficulties that are contributing to the situation. Take that possibility into account when discussing the situation.
- Consider providing empathy training for those in leadership roles or even across the organization. Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it can be learned.
- Train leaders to be good listeners. This is the ground level; being able to empathize first requires understanding what someone is going through, and to do that, you need to be able to listen well.
- Take feelings into account. When making changes at the workplace, consider how they will impact employees and how the changes are likely to make the employees feel. Take this into account not only in the decisions but also in how things are communicated.
- Take employee concerns seriously. This means training not just the HR team but also the entire leadership team not to brush off employee concerns. Listen attentively, and try to understand where employees are coming from and what they need.
- Encourage real teamwork, which can allow employees to get to know one another and be naturally empathetic toward one another.
- Get input when things go awry. When mistakes are made, take time to listen to the employee’s perspective. Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons things happen, and if we take the time to listen and empathize, we may be able to see the big picture more clearly and know how to proceed.
Being empathetic to employee situations is more than just being nice. Empathy can show employees they’re sincerely valued, which can positively increase engagement and productivity and even retention. Employees are more likely to stay somewhere they feel heard and understood.