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What Works: Remember, They're Human Resources

Empathy should be more than just a pleasant concept.

June 20, 2002
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When Boris Slogar enters a room, people notice. He's six feet five inches tall and powerfully built. He has a trimmed black beard peppered with gray, aging him beyond his 36 years. He strides with the steady gait of someone who likes to lead.

Slogar also has an imposing title: deputy tax commissioner and chief of staff for the Ohio Department of Taxation. His job puts him in a top position in one of the biggest agencies in Ohio state government.
If he wanted to, Slogar could wield his authority in nasty ways. But he doesn't. In fact, Slogar is a classic nice guy. He's living proof that a little bit of empathy goes a long way in the workplace.

The story of The E-Mail comes to mind. It all started when Slogar's boss told him to contact employees who would be eligible for retirement within two years. For understandable planning purposes, the agency wanted to get a handle on what people intended to do once they could retire. Several hundred people qualified, so Slogar decided to send them an e-mail asking about their plans.

Many managers would see this as a straightforward solicitation of information. They'd pound out a memo, send it off, and be done with it. Not Slogar. He realized that such a letter could raise questions, suspicions, and fears about management intentions and job security.

If you can't imagine how others might respond, try to recall what it was like in your own shoes years ago.

He proceeded to think, rethink, and agonize. He put himself in the shoes of those several hundred people who'd be receiving the e-mail. He thought about his days at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, where he had worked as an engineer in dam safety, and what it was like to get coolly unsettling e-mails from senior managers.

The next morning, Slogar sat at his computer. He labored over a first draft, searching for just the right words. The ponderous approach of writing, reading, rereading, and revising made the task more difficult. As he worked, he tried to imagine himself on the receiving end.

" 'I kept asking, What would I want to read that wouldn't offend me?' "

He circulated the draft to a few close associates for their feedback. Then he leaned over his keyboard one last time and carefully made some revisions. "I didn't want to spill my heart out and go too far," he recalls, "but I didn't want to sound iron-fisted, either. I figured, If I can write this as sincerely and respectfully as I'd say it in person, maybe some of that will come through."

The final product came to 500 words. Here's an excerpt:

"Keep in mind that this should not be construed as a nudge to move you along and out the door. You've given years of service to this department and to the state of Ohio. I believe we can all agree that it would be nearly impossible to replace your experience, skill, and abilities. With proper planning, however, we can pass along your knowledge about systems and processes. Taking these steps will help to insure that our customers will not experience a large drop-off in service. We need your help."

The letter-writing process had hardly been efficient. Slogar easily spent twice as much time as you'd expect for such a task. But the extra hours paid off. About 95 percent of the recipients quickly wrote back with the requested information. The others responded after a reminder. Only one person expressed deep concerns. Most important, the e-mail never sparked rumors or fears. People took Slogar at his word.

According to Webster, empathy is all about "sharing in another person's emotions or feelings." For some, it comes naturally. For others, it requires conscious effort. Here are some ways to turn empathy from a pleasant concept into practical action:

Wait, don't take action: We live in a fast world that rewards people who can fly through a to-do list. But quickness is rarely ideal when it comes to empathy. Before taking any action -- whether it involves sending an important e-mail or something else -- try to imagine what it might be like to be affected by the change. That's right, as clichéd as it sounds, put yourself in other people's shoes. If you were in their spot, how would you want the change to unfold?

Remember what it was like: If you can't imagine how others might respond, try to recall what it was like in your own shoes years ago. For example, if you're meeting with employees to announce a major organizational change, get ready by reflecting on your own work history. Were you ever in a similar situation, being on the receiving end of such information? If so, how did it feel? What could have been done differently? If you listen hard enough to your own answers, you'll come up with smart ways to proceed.

Get some feedback: Even if you're great at putting yourself in other people's shoes and mining your own work history for guidance, it's worth getting additional input. Slogar shared a draft of that important e-mail with some of his colleagues. This works with a written product, but other times you'll want to get together with coworkers to talk things over and determine the best course of action. You probably have a trusted sounding board -- make the most of it. Even if you have pretty much decided what to do, share your plan with one or two other people for a final reality check.

Take your time: Empathy and efficiency rarely go hand in hand. Precious time ticks away while you're weighing people's concerns, reflecting on the best way to proceed, getting input from others, and fine-tuning your approach. But one thing's for sure: the lost time is paid back with big gains in respect and trust. Just ask Slogar.

Workforce, January 2002, pp. 22-24 -- Subscribe Now!

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