SHRM CEO: HR Leaders Must Approach Compliance Through Empathy


​Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM

Human resource leaders must focus on workplace compliance to keep their organizations out of legal trouble—but the greater incentive should be to protect their employees and treat them with the care they deserve, according to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

"Against the current backdrop of a global pandemic, business disruptions and calls for racial justice, HR leaders must approach compliance using the lens of empathy, now more than ever," Taylor said during SHRM's Employment Law & Compliance virtual conference on April 6.

Taylor addressed the "empathy deficit" in the workplace and beyond. "We have given up on understanding the hearts of our fellow humans."

According to a 2020 SHRM survey, 41 percent of workers reported feeling burned out from their work and 23 percent reported often feeling depressed. Additionally, according to SHRM's The Journey to Equity and Inclusion research report, 33 percent of Black workers reported feeling unvalued at work; 20 percent of all workers reported feeling the same.

"Collectively, the human cost of the events of the last year are hard to assess," Taylor said. "We must rebuild the trust of those trying to heal."

Putting Empathy into Practice

SHRM Chief Global Development Officer Nick Schacht, SHRM-SCP, observed that when people hear the word "empathy," they may be inclined to dismiss it as a soft skill, but empathy is a business skill that people need to master.

There's a difference between empathy and sympathy, Taylor noted. While sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone, empathy takes matters to the next level. When people show empathy, they see the problem from the other person's point of view and try to find solutions. "That next step is what's necessary for us to make a difference," he noted.

Taylor said the empathy deficit is showing up every day at work. "CEOs have an obligation to demonstrate empathy in their leadership, but it really comes down to HR to put that into practice in the workplace."

So what can HR do? HR professionals are in the unique position to take the following actions:  

  • Consistently make the business case to the leadership team for more-empathetic workplaces that can attract and retain the best people.
  • Help the organization make the connection between empathy and performance. Research from the Center for Creative Leadership shows that organizations perform better with empathy.
  • Train front-line managers on how to lead with empathy. Empathetic managers look for signs that their direct reports may be overworked or stressed and show sincere interest in the needs of their employees. Even a five-minute check-in call with a remote worker can go a long way.

"With the support of our managers, HR doesn't need to do it all, but we must lead it all," Taylor said.

Together Forward @Work

"It's going to be a big year for workplace legislation," Taylor predicted. Changes to labor law, immigration, wage and hour rules, and pay equity are inevitable. Many organizations have made changes to their leave policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are taking steps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace.

"Much of the resurgence of DE&I programing in the wake of the George Floyd killing was supposed to encourage open conversation and mutual understanding, but too often it bypassed empathy," Taylor said.

SHRM's Together Forward @Work platform focuses on having difficult conversations within defined parameters and creating positive change. "With boundaries, discussions don't turn into debates and people aren't punished for their opinions," Taylor explained.

Leading with empathy can help promote second-chance hiring and veteran hiring programs, as well as other DE&I initiatives. Organizations need to identify potential weak spots to understand what is working well and what is not in their culture, Taylor said. "We have to change hearts and minds."



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