Empathetic Workplaces Are Underpinning to Inclusiveness, Equity

By Kathy Gurchiek March 15, 2021
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Empathetic Workplaces Are Underpinning to Inclusiveness, Equity

​The COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized impact on women in the workplace, making it more challenging for women with caregiving responsibilities to be successful at work, and causing many to voluntarily exit the workforce, said Emily M. Dickens, chief of staff, head of government affairs and corporate secretary for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Emily M. Dickens, chief of staffIn opening remarks at a panel SHRM co-hosted with the North American Human Resource Management Association on International Women's Day, Dickens stressed the importance of empathy in the workplace, in part because employers with empathetic cultures enjoy higher productivity and retain the best workers.

She pointed to SHRM data that found 44 percent of HR professionals surveyed think they can make the greatest impact by building a more empathetic culture.

"It's not as simple as a training module at school or work," but a business skill that enables people with different styles, opinions, preferences and experiences to work cooperatively. "We have to strengthen our empathy muscle, build it and live it," she said. "HR can help do this."

Panel moderator Achal Khanna, CEO of SHRM India, cited a 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study from BusinessSolver that found Achal Khanna, CEO of SHRM India 83 percent of workers in Generation Z would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over one offering a higher salary, and would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic one.

"Generally speaking, women and men look for different things in workplaces. Some may prefer flexibility over high pay and offerings such as paid leave and child care while others may look for benefits supporting health and wellness or personal finance," she said.

Empathy Can Lead to Equity

New SHRM data found that one-third of employed American women personally know a woman who left the workforce because of caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic. And 27 percent of female survey respondents said their professional development has been stifled because of caregiving responsibilities since the pandemic began. The data is from a survey conducted in February for SHRM with 536 U.S. workers.

Anna FalthIt's important for employers to know who their employees are—their needs, what inspires them and why they choose your organization as their employer, said panelist Anna Falth. She is head of Women's Empowerment Principles Secretariat and senior programme manager and policy advisor at UN Women in New York City. UN Women is the United Nations' entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.  

Not until you have a better understanding of your employees, she said, "will you be able to develop the policies and programs that cater to your employees," and become an employer of choice.

"Different companies will do [this] differently, depending on what their industries and issues are."

Building awareness of bias—conscious and unconscious—can help remove barriers to equity.

Lucy Kuri"We as recruiters or people leaders tend to find people that look like us or think like us," observed panelist Lucy Kuri, chief HR officer for Mars Inc. for the U.S., Canada and Latin America. "The only way to close this gap is investing in education, training and resources to build awareness" around bias. 

[SHRM members-only tools and samples: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy]

Panelist Roberto Suarez Santos stressed the role leaders play in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. He is secretary general of the International Organization of Employers. 

"You will never be able to change, you will never be able to make a difference bringing more women in top, leading positions in the labor market itself, if you do not lead with example," he said. That change will be reflected not just in a single policy or program, "but an overall approach which will change how we see things." 

The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion must be conveyed by those at the top of an organization, whether it's the chief executive officer or the board chair, Falth noted.

Roberto Suarez Santos

"We do see some of the hiccups" in executing policies and strategies to increase equity "come at the middle-management level," she said. Tell middle managers that the point of the policies and strategies is "not why it matters for women; it's why it matters for both women and men and why it matters to the company and why it helps the company to be an employer of choice." 

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