By Mark Carey
When I create blog posts, I search for supporting imagery to help drive the message home. In the above image, can you tell whether or not this corporate executive is emanating empathy or apathy. Yes, I know, you need context. Here we go. When you are done with the article, re-examine the above image to decide if the executive is really being empathetic or apathetic about employee concerns.
Corporate adoption of empathy skills training for managers and executives is not new. High priced consultants have been pushing this agenda for a while. Outside the office, developing empathy means trying to understand and share the feelings or experiences of someone else. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is more one-directional: you feel sad for what someone else is going through, but you have little understanding of what it feels like. Because empathy is predicated on experience, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate. At best, it’s expanded sympathy; at worst, it’s trying to force connections between wildly different lived experiences… (Source: Time article below).
On May 10, 2022, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled Why Is Your Boss Asking About Your Feelings? Inside the Empathy Management Trend. Ok, this was a nice piece of writing post pandemic emphasizing a new corporate face to replace the old. What piqued my interest was the glaring obvious alter ego of corporate empathy from the pre-pandemic world, that time before time if you can remember. I was apoplectic bordering on insanity. Why?
Employee reaction can be summed up in this tidy quote that appeared in a Time Magazine article entitled Companies are Embracing Empathy to Keep Employees Happy. It’s Not that Easy: Still, I’ve heard from workers who think it’s all nonsense: the latest in a long string of corporate attempts to distract from toxic or exploitive company culture, yet another scenario in which employers implore workers to be honest and vulnerable about their needs, then implicitly or explicitly punish them for it. I could not agree more because I know too much about all the corporate garbage being thrown out the Human Resources back door nearest the dumpster.
If you actually believe the latest surge in corporate empathy training is effective and will produce lasting change, you are insane! I have been monitoring the employment workplace for more than twenty-five years and the reality most if not all employees experience is a meditation in absolutism and autocracy via the human resources department. I continue to warn employees that the human resources department is not your friend and is not there to help you. Stretching further out from there, your manager is just an extension of management and the human resources department. Neither of which can be trusted let alone permitted to engage in empathy with you about whatever issue you are dealing with.
The real reason companies are pushing this empathy thing, again, is because they need employees to stay within their rank and file, instead of jumping ship to the next employer. According to the 2021 State of Workplace Empathy Study, as reported in the Time article, only 1 and 4 employees believed their employers engaged in sufficient empathy with employees.
When can we begin to trust our employers and believe the face of real transparent corporate empathy at work? When companies remove the baffles, eliminate the at-will rule, and let the real employment relationship begin. Face it, employees do not trust employers based on decades of maltreatment and fear mongering by employers, in particular human resource departments and the corporate executives that dictate to those departments. Employees nationwide work under a state of low to moderate level of fear that their next day could be their last day. This is true for an employee at McDonalds and is true for an employee at Bridgewater Associates or Goldman Sachs. Why? Because the at-will employment relationship is just that- at-will. Employers need you one day and the very next they put you on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) for no apparent reason and then fire you. When employers like Starbucks and Amazon realize that employees do not want unionization, but really want a higher level of trust- trust that your employer has your back just like your family. An employment relationship based on a termination for just-cause can provide that level of trust between employees and management. A just-cause employment provides predictability. Specifically, employees can avoid certain pre-identified behaviors that can lead to termination such as sexual harassment or theft. When employers promote a just-cause employment they create an identifiable trust where only true empathy can coexist. No trust, no empathy- it’s just that simple.
Employees across the country are now in a unique position to forever alter the employment landscape. Unionization is not the answer. I have never found any unions to be trustworthy, only paternalist and biased in favor of their collective bargaining counterparts- the employers. We have never seen a client, who was part of a union, represented by the union’s legal team when they really need them. What employees need to do is speak up about implementation of just-cause termination policies and the elimination of the employment at-will rule. This is not a progressive agenda; this is an American agenda. Everyone needs to work but we should not have to fear our employers. The time to change is now.
Listen to Podcast: Corporate Empathy or Just Plain Old Apathetic Employment Practices