Yesterday I asked the question “Do you have to be a psychopath to be in HR?” If you read that post you know that HR was not in the top 10 professions that exhibit psychopathic traits, I am sure much to the relief of many readers. Today I wanted to follow up with a discussion of another trait that many people consider to be a key trait of HR professionals – empathy.
The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
Author Roman Krznaric defines it as “… the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity. And don’t confuse it with the Golden Rule.” He quotes George Bernard Shaw to make his point. “As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, ‘Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.’ Empathy is about discovering those tastes.”
Krznaric wrote about empathy in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People.” I am going to use his six habits to illustrate why it is important to HR professionals to be empathetic.
Habit 1: Talk with strangers
Krznaric says that highly empathetic people, or HEPs, talk to everyone. They are curious people who find what others do to be very interesting. They ask a lot of questions without doing an interrogation. A favorite quote of mine was is “To be interesting, be interested.” Krznaric says “Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own.” This kind of curiosity is critical for effective HR professionals. It is important to understand employees beyond the nature of the work they do on a daily basis. To truly understand them you need to go beyond their work hours and work interests. Many of us cannot often tell anything more about a person than what their job title is and how they perform their job. That is not enough.
Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
With the diversity that we have in our workforces today this is critical. Krznaric makes the point that highly empathic people “challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.” It gets too easy to see employees as “them” and not “us.” The whole basis of the EEO laws is to break down the barriers between groups and empathy goes along way. It will help the HR professional understand the challenges in today’s modern world with things such as how you handle a job and a family as a single mother.
Habit 3: Try another person’s life
Krznaric tells about George Orwell living among the poor and destitute on the streets of London and Paris to discover what their lives were like. I don’t think it is quite that necessary to go to that level, but you can gain empathy for the plight of employees if you spend some time working in their jobs. If you have a hot facility and people say you don’t have any idea what it is like, then don a uniform and go work for a period of time in that facility. You will get a much better idea of what they have to deal with and you will make sure they have appropriate protections and breaks. Early in my HR career I started off spending my first six weeks of employment working in other jobs and departments before I ever worked a day in HR. It gave me a much better appreciation of those jobs.
This ends Part 1 of this post on empathy. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.