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Volunteering Builds Workplace Empathy

By Josephine Victoria Yam, J.D., LLM.

April 2, 2019

“Our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” wrote Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and Founder, in a memo to his 180,000 employees.

Bezos was reacting to the scathing New York Times article that described "how workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late… The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”

At Amazon, the culture is ferocious and cut-throat. For those who survive it, the top-shelf Amazonians, it is a badge of honour.

But Amazon's lack of workplace empathy is more common than we think. According to a Harvard Business Review article, lack of workplace empathy is prevalent in many organizations. And especially among their middle managers and senior executives. This is particularly troubling because they’re the ones who wield the greatest influence in organizations.

What is empathy?

It's the ability to deeply understand and experience the thoughts and feelings of another. It involves not just thinking but actually seeing the world with different lenses.

“Empathy is a business imperative that leads to tangible bottom line impact,” declares the 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Report. Empathy is necessary to retain and engage top talent as part of a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

There is a very strong business case for workplace empathy:

 
82% of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic employer
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78% of employees would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer
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72% of CEOs admit that workplace empathy needs to improve in their organizations to be more competitive
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So how does your organization build workplace empathy?

One way is by supporting employee volunteering.

One research study reported a direct correlation between volunteerism and empathy. Individuals who volunteer develop higher levels of empathy than those who do not.

In other words, volunteering breeds empathy. And empathy is a necessary ingredient for a diverse and inclusive workplace culture to thrive.

For example, many of our corporate clients leverage our Board Matching Programs so that their employees can experientially develop empathy while serving on nonprofit boards. They believe that empathy is one of the most crucial leadership skills to succeed in today's global economy.

The 2018 Better World Leadership Report stated that 83% of employees serving on boards report a deeper understanding of the challenges facing people who live in different circumstances. When employees work together with diverse people towards a shared mission, they develop trust, understanding and empathy. They open their minds to fresh ideas, new mental models and novel perspectives. They create new experiences and break down the stereotypes they’ve had in their minds.

The great news is that employees bring back this enhanced appreciation for diversity when they return to the office. They develop greater empathy and trust towards their diverse office colleagues. This increases employee engagement and retention.

Volunteering is empathy in action.

When your organization supports employee volunteering, it creates a culture that's caring, collaborative and compassionate. One that allows employees to grow, thrive and bring their whole selves to work. One that enables them to be creative, to innovate and to flourish.

Far from the ferocious and cut-throat competition that is Amazon's, your organization's empathetic workplace culture will be a true badge of honour that all your fully engaged employees can be proud of.

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