Once upon a time, societies "were grounded in the notion of a common good and collective responsibility," but today the U.S. is in the midst of an "empathy deficit, a gap of goodwill," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Taylor shared his thoughts during virtual State of the Society remarks at SHRM's annual Volunteer Leaders' Business Meeting on Nov. 20. More than 2,000 SHRM volunteer leaders attended, representing 470 affiliated SHRM chapters, 50 SHRM state councils, and the SHRM Pacific State Council made up of Guam and the Mariana Islands.

Taylor urged HR leaders to make the business case for empathy. He cited findings from the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study by Businessolver that linked empathy with recruitment and retention. Among members of Generation Z—the oldest of whom are 23 this year—Businessolver found that:

  • 83 percent would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary; 75 percent of employees in other generations would make this choice.
  • 79 percent would choose an empathetic employer even if it meant changing their role, industry or career path.
  • 83 percent would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.
Volunteer leaders can steer their chapters and state councils to provide programs and resources that promote empathy and belonging in their business communities, Taylor noted, and can make the connection between empathy and performance in their organizations.

"The empathy deficit shows up every day at work," he said. "Much of the resurgence of [diversity, equity and inclusion] programming in the wake of the George Floyd killing was supposed to encourage open conversation and mutual understanding—but often it bypassed empathy. Well-meaning programs devolve into grievance sessions. … rather than [people] listening and trying to relate" to each other.

It's up to HR professionals to set expectations for these conversations so that they are effective, Taylor said. 

"We have an opportunity to make an empathy impact that will be felt in homes and communities and around the world."

He also pointed to research from the Center for Creative Leadership that found empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance.

"Empathy is not a soft skill," Taylor said. "It's a business skill. It's what enables people to work cooperatively with others who have very different experiences, preferences, styles and opinions.

"HR has to do something to reverse the empathy deficit in the workplace," he continued. "To close the gap. To work the muscle." Volunteer leaders, he noted, are in a position to close that gap. "HR leaders can identify the intersections where empathy and performance come together, and standing at those intersections are your people managers. … That's why empathy is such a large part of SHRM's People Manager Qualification."

Managers typically are the first line of defense for employees struggling with work or stress at a time when people are sad and scared and as the lines between work and home are becoming nonexistent, he said.

Domestic violence has risen sharply, and suicide rates are up. Recent SHRM research found that 20 percent of U.S. workers surveyed feel unvalued—not undervalued—at work; 33 percent of Black workers said they feel unvalued.

Being empathetic can be as simple as a manager showing compassion for personal loss, cheering on personal achievements, watching for signs of overwork and showing a sincere interest in the people they supervise, Taylor said.

"The workplace is the best place to build empathy muscles," he noted, "because it's where the working population spends the majority of [its] waking time. We have an opportunity to make an empathy impact that will be felt in homes and communities and around the world."

During his remarks, Taylor pointed to the Society's other accomplishments in 2020, during which SHRM and its staff continued to serve its members and elevate the profession during the global pandemic:

  • Launched Together Forward @Work, SHRM's call to action to drive racial inequity and bias from workplaces, informed by recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Racial Equity. The initiative aims to help employers better understand racial inequities in the workplace and foster difficult conversations about race that don't dissolve into debates.
  • Released The Journey to Equity and Inclusion, a research report on social injustice and racism at work.
  • Created the "When Work Works Against Us" national campaign that tackled hidden bias, exclusion, ageism and toxic work environments that keep people from performing their best at work and in some cases cause them to leave their employer for more-inclusive workplaces.
  • Created a Coronavirus and COVID-19 resource page for assistance in navigating the pandemic.
  • Partnered with ParagonLabs, SHRM's new innovation lab and venture capital arm. "By partnering with startups in the workplace technology space," Taylor said, "we will unlock the potential of individuals and organizations to shape the future of work in areas like performance management, learning and development, and the employee experience."
  • Granted more than 30,000 people eligibility to take the SHRM-CP or the SHRM-SCP exam.
  • Offered live remote proctoring as an option to take the certification exam at home; 111,000 individuals achieved SHRM certification, and 72 percent recertified. "I'm especially proud of how we have been able to grow certification among military members, veterans and military families by 945 percent," Taylor said.
  • Introduced student pricing for the certification exam to match student membership pricing.
  • Introduced a new program that enables certified professionals to earn professional development credits for work they do to support their organizations and maintain business continuity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Launched "Tune in Tuesdays," a monthly virtual event featuring workplace experts discussing HR topics, news and solutions.
Taylor also noted that SHRM is financially sound despite the disruptions of a global pandemic that prompted the global HR membership organization to cancel its Annual Conference and move other signature events, like its Talent Conference & Expo and its INCLUSION conference, to all-virtual formats. The INCLUSION 2020 conference in October attracted a record number of participants.

"Our risk management strategies have enabled us to withstand the impact to our business, and we feel comfortable that we can seamlessly continue our services to members and stakeholders," Taylor said. "We don't know what 2021 will bring, but we are ready to maximize efficiencies."

Taylor thanked volunteer leaders for their commitment to SHRM and the profession.

"Everywhere, I see our volunteer leaders rising to incredible challenges, even as you try to manage your own personal obstacles," he said. "You are the pulse of the profession, the heart of SHRM, and the empathy coaches who can build the muscles that ensure our workplaces are restored and ready for anything."


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.