Leading with Compassion in the Workplace

The Need for Compassion

Is compassion needed in the world? In the workplace? In your home? In your relationships? 


Yes, yes, yes, and yes! Financial worries, relationship issues, loss of any kind, stress – all these can lead to serious and detrimental results on the job, not to mention one's health. You know and understand that compassion is always needed. But one must ask, “What forms of compassion - in the workplace, specifically - are acceptable?”

The question has been posed, so let’s attempt an answer to it - starting with a definition of compassion and why simple awareness of others' needs or struggles is so important.

What Is Compassion?

According to Jean Piaget (1896-1980), ‘Intelligence is not what one knows, but what one does when one does not know’.

According to Jean Piaget (1896-1980), ‘Intelligence is not what one knows, but what one does when one does not know’.

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Google’s dictionary offers the following as synonyms for compassion: pity, sympathy, empathy, care, concern, sensitivity, warmth, love, tenderness, mercy, leniency, tolerance, and kindness.

Awareness of Others

When we are aware of others' distress, it reveals our emotional intelligence (EI), and a person with high EI should be able to work successfully with people facing stressful and difficult situations. Why? Because they tend to be somewhat intuitive about others' feelings or moods as well as both focused and effective in their responses. Not surprisingly, they are also known for tackling problems and pondering solutions rather than merely offering sympathy and concentrating only on the problem itself.

Yet sometimes, it is in the mere acknowledgment of another person's feelings or obvious emotional turmoil whereby compassion is best expressed. In the workplace, we shouldn't cross the acceptable personal line of voiced concern for our coworkers to the private line of questioning unless there is a mutual trust and willingness to open up.

The Practice of Compassion

However, the question remains, "How should compassion play out in the workplace?" The simple answer is this: kindness and compassion toward others is a great thing. The complexity of the answer lies in this statement: kindness is always a great thing - yet the way it can play out is not always necessarily the desired outcome. Maybe the timing is wrong, maybe emotions are off the charts, maybe . . . any number of reasons.

the beauty of kindness

Need an example or two? While a listening ear and a compassionate word are usually well-received, that is not always the case.

If I am on the verge of tears at work or in any public place, although it may be the thing I need, a kind word or hug could usher in a flood of tears and loud sobbing.

My own daughter does not wish for blatant sympathy when she is dealing with certain unfortunate circumstances, no matter how honorable my intentions are in regard to empathizing with her. She simply prefers to move on with life, even if the sadness creeps in and takes over periodically. She sees no need to rehash the sadness aloud. If I insist on talking about "it", even as a mom, I've crossed a line in my expression of compassion (with her).

We would also do well to remember that anger is one of the stages of grief. If a coworker is going through a great loss, we may be exposed not only to their sadness but also to their hostility and irritability. There is no easy cure for grief, and if it spirals out of control during office hours, it may be time to recommend a grief counselor. However, you never know how an employee will respond to that recommendation either, especially if they are already upset or angry at the world.

As much as possible, be intuitive and sensitive rather than careless with your words and actions in the workplace. Asking if a person in crisis wants to talk about "it" is always a direct way of conveying your concern to a coworker. Letting them know your availability to talk when they are ready is another option. Whatever you say, keep it simple. Limit your words but not necessarily your sympathy. Allow the person to focus on work rather than on the crisis if it's not an appropriate time to talk. 

The Extent of Compassion in the Office

How far should you take compassion in the workplace? Honestly, my best answer is to take it as far as you must in order to meet the need. You’ve heard the stories of business owners who have gone to extreme lengths by providing cars or even homes for their employees who found themselves in dire situations.

Perhaps you’re also acquainted with employees who have willingly shared some of their paid time off with fellow employees who were struggling with cancer or some other diagnosis requiring them to be out of the office for long periods of time.

On the other hand, maybe you’ve been micromanaged by bosses who go strictly by the book and fail to show compassion no matter how difficult a situation an employee finds him/herself in.

challenging & stressful work - lady feels pressure from every direction

It’s true. Working in a corporate environment generally requires a strict accounting of hours worked, lunch hours and paid time off, but does that mean compassion cannot abound? Absolutely not, especially when employees find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

While disproportionate amounts of flexibility directed toward a few individual employees would most likely be called into question, typical acts of sincere kindness, generosity and flexibility should not be. Direct managers should be provided with company guidelines on how to handle such situations. 

The What-Ifs That Stir Our Compassion

disaster spelled with Scrabble tiles

Literally, what if there is a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or fire that impacts your staff and they need an advance on their next paycheck? What if your employee has no means of transportation to a parent’s funeral? What if a close family member or a beloved pet dies, and the employee has no more PTO remaining? What if a judge requires one of your staff members to appear in court daily throughout an entire month?

As a business owner or HR Manager, it is wise to have a contingency plan for responding to these what-if scenarios.

The Look of Workplace Compassion

Unfortunately, it is true that employees can push the envelope of expectation and entitlement, so we have these questions to consider: 

  • How much flexibility should you allow a struggling employee?
  • How much compassion in the form of "tangible help" should an employer offer, if any?
  • Is your Human Resource department one which promotes kindness, giving, flexibility, and loyalty toward its people, especially during stressful situations or natural disasters that company employees may find themselves a part of?

Some may say that this is why their company provides vacation time and personal days for employees. Nevertheless, sometimes more is needed.

help (in ALL CAPS)

Below are a few ideas regarding compassion directed toward employees:

  • You can always express a word of sympathy and sincere concern for others’ losses and difficulties in life – and probably should in most cases.
  • If you have been through a similar situation, remember the reality of your struggle, and show empathy.
  • Sometimes employers don’t fully realize it, but showing compassion is not against the law -- favoritism is what you should be careful of. Showing sensitivity and a little flexibility is displaying kindness. However, all managers should respond similarly to any known struggle of their employees and understand both how and when it is appropriate (or not) to intervene.
  • Managers and co-workers must remember that outright pity is something which many people do not desire. It is also difficult for many people to accept "charity", so be mindful of others' feelings.
  • Should you ever sponsor a GoFundMe page for an employee or one of their family members? Maybe so.
  • Should you ever advance a paycheck or extra cash to your employees? Maybe so.
  • Should you ever grant an unpaid leave of absence? Perhaps. Maybe your company needs to develop a sabbatical type of program detailing the situations in which an employee might be granted unpaid leave.
  • In all expressions of compassion, exercise wisdom and caution in regard to both your words and actions.
Here’s a good - though sometimes costly - rule of thumb: If it is in your power to do good, then you should.

Here’s a good - though sometimes costly - rule of thumb: If it is in your power to do good, then you should.

The good you do may take the form of a sympathy card, a plant, paid time off, a flexible schedule, and maybe even time off without pay. It may also be providing counseling, support in conquering a bad habit, accountability, the opportunity to make up for a mistake, or forgiveness. Kindness may involve a few employees showing up after hours to assist a struggling employee with some challenging task, simply taking the time to listen, or even donating to a worthy cause. Perhaps the employee just needs you to bear with them for a time, then re-evaluate the situation.

A Story of Workplace Compassion

I love this story from a now-retired HR Manager: There was a long-time employee causing his boss and coworkers lots of grief with his moody disposition, rude behavior, and negative attitude during the work day. In previous years, this man had been a great employee, but that was no longer the case. The HR manager had a heart-to-heart talk with the employee about his behavior. In turn, he chose to share some of his situation with her. However, the situation he was facing did not change the fact that he had to find a way to improve his attitude and behavior toward others. She was sympathetic (and wise), so instead of firing him, the HR manager told the man to take a few weeks off (paid!) so he could try to remember why he took the job to begin with and to reconsider all its benefits. He did take some time off, and when he returned, all was well once again and (to my knowledge) stayed that way.

conversation between two professional figures

What I appreciate most about this case scenario is that the HR Manager addressed the problem directly with the employee and didn’t skirt around the issue. He was going to lose his job if his attitude didn’t improve in a big way. She remembered that the costs associated with losing and hiring a new employee are just that . . . costly! Was her gamble with the employee (a.k.a. compassion) worth an extra $1,000 or $2,000? Absolutely! The company held on to a great employee who was simply going through a crisis and needed some time to refocus. She was happy with the outcome, and so was the employee. I can assure you that the “compassionate accountability” she required of him will never be forgotten.

Leading With Compassion

the trust factor in the workplace

Walking with employees through the ups and downs of life can be costly, but worth every penny when you see them come through those valleys successfully. As far as building loyalty and trust among your employees - wow! There may not even be a need for fancy employee engagement or retention strategies when you practice kindness and moral support. So, invest in your people today and see what leading with a little compassion can do for employee engagement and retention at your place of business.

For more information about Brannon Professionals and its staffing/consulting services, CLICK HERE.