Institutionalized Empathy

In its blurb this month entitled “The 3 Things Employees Really Want,” Inc. prints it right there in black and white. First, employees want purpose. Secondly, they want autonomy. And finally, employees want empathy. “Caring doesn’t take money,” says the article, “but it does take time. It means creating an amazing work environment, welcoming people on their first day, remembering anniversaries, and being flexible with time off.”

I can imagine some mid-level manager scurrying off to HR after reading that, demanding that birthday cards be sent to all employees. That’s the way a lot of big companies manage their people– whenever there’s a problem on a human level, an algorithm is implemented to give the impression that the talking heads of the company really do care.

I once worked for a company that would send me a gift card to a movie theater on my birthday every year. It was a nice gesture, certainly, and I appreciated the idea that my nebulous corporate overlord would have a spreadsheet and secretary in place to wish me well every year, but I’ll never forget the time I was at that job and got an emergency phone call while I was talking to my supervisor.

They’d found my mom unconscious and not breathing on the floor of her apartment, and she was now in a coma in the hospital. I hung up, tears coursing down my face despite my best efforts at self-control, and I explained the situation to the supervisor I’d been talking to. I continued with what I’d been discussing before the phone call, trying to be as professional as possible, waiting for him to interrupt me to express condolences, to tell me to go home and tend to my family, to tell me that work could wait, to tell me that I should take an hour and a friend and go for a walk in the park next door, to tell me anything at all that acknowledged my humanity. Instead, I got to the end of what I’d been telling him, and he told me what the next step of my task for the project would be, and sent me on my way, out of his office. 

I’d have traded a truckload of gift cards for a little empathy right then.

My mom recovered, thank heavens, but my relationship with my supervisor only got worse from that point on.

Empathy doesn’t count if it doesn’t come from the core of one’s humanity. I’d caution Inc. readers that if their aim is to be an empathetic corporation, rote protocol is no substitute for human understanding. You can’t get credit for being an empathetic company if you as a manager don’t operate with heart.

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