The “E” word is empathy; apparently a dirty word in the world of justice.  Dalia Lithwick, in a recent Newsweek column called Steven’s Real Legacy, decries the demonizing of the word by Republican politicians and commentators who claim that empathy means judging from the heart rather than from a strict interpretation of the law. 

That’s too bad, Lithwick says, because “empathy isn’t emotional incontinence and it isn’t fudging the law to help the little guy.  Empathy is the power to imagine a world outside your experience, and to map that understanding onto the law.”

It made me think about all the articles written lately about why we hate HR.   I think lack of empathy is at the heart of this; so many HR people believe that in an effort to walk the tightrope between being management and representing employees, they must interpret policy very strictly in order to avoid any appearance of bias.  The result is that they become policy-quoting bureaucrats that appear to have little sense of business practicality or individual employee needs.  If only they could imagine an experience different than their own—the experience of an employee struggling to balance work and personal life, or of a manager struggling to make a financial target that she perceives to be in conflict with organizational policy—then perhaps HR would be a little more creative in finding workable solutions.

I am a former HR director myself, and  I used to post Catbert the Evil HR Director cartoons on my office door in an effort to humanize myself.  Eventually, I just left HR.  I remember one of the pivotal events that led to my decision; the small financial services company I worked for was doing an umpteenth RIF, and senior leadership wanted me to handle all of the communications with affected employees.  I pleaded with them to imagine what it would be like to be let go by HR instead of by one’s own supervisor, and thus be unable to ask questions specific to the many fears that go through a downsized employee’s mind–“Was it my performance?  Did I do a good job?  Would you recommend me elsewhere?”  Senior leadership either could not imagine being in those particular pairs of shoes, or did not care.  Eventually I came not to care either, and that’s when I knew I needed to leave.

What has been your experience with HR and empathy?  Any stories to share?


  1. Unfortunately, customers’ and employees’ BS-ometers are conditioned to peg in the red zone when companies say, “our people are our most important assets,” and, “we’re customer centric”. Neither ring true any more without overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    And, employees will act in accord with creating empathetically-driven customer relationships only in proportion to the level at which their emotional coffers are filled by management. At the risk of beating a horse than long crossed the finish line, this linkage was demonstrated 20 years ago, has been quantified in numerous studies and is undisputed.

    In the U.S., the next management frontier risks being barren one, littered with sophisticated analytic engines (outsourced to low-cost providers in distant lands), unless more managers become more adept at nourishing meaningful relationships with employees, partners and customers.

    Paraphrasing Einstein, what counts can’t always be counted. Empathy is emerging as a valued currency in the new economy.

  2. Jason, thanks for your comment, you make a good point. Empathy, like “sh_t”, rolls downhill. 🙂