But despite its staying power, this adage is as outdated as can be. Regardless of where we’re from (and it’s definitely the same planet), men and women both want to be treated equally in the workplace.
In Businessolver’s third annual State of Workplace Empathy Study, we asked hundreds of people about empathy in the American workplace, and we actually found broad agreement on a range of questions. Irrespective of gender, there is widespread consensus that it’s important for companies to demonstrate empathy. Additionally, large majorities of employees we surveyed said that empathy is undervalued in the workplace—90% of women agree it’s undervalued, and an even higher percentage of men (95%) say the same.
In our current cultural moment, however, it should come as no surprise that important differences exist between people’s perceptions and experiences regarding workplace empathy. Since our last study in 2017, we found the gulf between women and men has widened when asked about organizations and empathy. Only 33% of women surveyed in 2018 rated organizations and companies as a whole to be empathetic, while 71% of men said that they were. This is a 38 percentage point difference, which is even greater than the 26 percentage point difference this question generated in 2017.
This disparity makes more sense when you consider the disconnect between men and women on gender equality in the workplace. A recent study by McKinsey found that nearly 50% of men thought women were well-represented in leadership positions when, in fact, only 1 in 10 senior leaders at their companies were women.
This is a critical moment for American employers.
A full 87% of CEOs think that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy. Since 9 in 10 employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer, and 8 in 10 said they’d leave their job for a more empathetic company, it’s clear there is a compelling business case for empathy.
Better recruitment, less turnover, and improved employee engagement are possible when a company demonstrates empathy. Women in particular think that empathy improves the workplace—83% say empathy results in greater productivity, and 90% say it creates more motivated employees.
Over three-quarters (76%) of women surveyed said they would consider leaving their current organization if offered a comparable job with a more empathetic company. This raises the question, what can employers do to demonstrate that their organization is empathetic?
The first step is to recognize some commonalities that transcend gender. The 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study found that all employees value flexibility as the most empathetic behavior their employers can demonstrate. Both women and men rated understanding and/or respecting the need for time off to take care of personal family or medical issues as most empathetic, followed by understanding and/or respecting the need for flexible working hours.
While flexibility is on the rise in the American workplace, employers must recognize that these practices allow everyone to balance work and life outside of it. It should be pointed out that very few women—only 2%—say they plan to leave their jobs to focus on their families. Regardless of persistent stereotypes, it’s not only women who want or need to take time off to care for family members.
One size does not fit all
Beyond these shared opinions, there are tailored approaches that HR professionals can take to demonstrate empathy across the board. Women responded in the State of Workplace Empathy study that empathetic behaviors, after the flexibility practices discussed above, include going the extra mile to help a colleague or team member meet an immediate deadline, and advocating on behalf of a colleague. In contrast, men responded that, after flexibility, empathetic behaviors included recognizing an employee’s personal milestones and respecting personal working styles.
As HR professionals, we need to understand that women tend to view collaborative practices as demonstrating empathy, and we should encourage and support activities that allow employees to help one another. At the same time, we may need to evaluate how we recognize accomplishments or milestones, such as work anniversaries or the achievement of a degree. The act of acknowledging a personal goal or important milestone can demonstrate empathy.
This isn’t to say that HR pros must be all things to all employees (well, more than we are already!), but it suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace culture won’t work, and that staying creative and responsive is key to increasing workplace empathy.
Lastly, empathy training can make a meaningful impact on a company’s ability to exhibit empathy. More than 80% of male employees surveyed were interested in empathy training, such as workshops, online courses, or one-on-one sessions. Training can be a valuable tool for increasing empathetic behaviors in your organization, which can increase the positive perceptions of the entire employee base.
Starting with a self-diagnostic test is a simple way to introduce the concept of empathy training. When employees become aware of how empathetic, or non-empathetic, they appear to their colleagues, it gets the conversation around empathy started. And just as importantly, CEOs and HR professionals can benefit from empathy training—whether it’s assessing how their organization measures up, or exploring new strategies to increase their EQ.
Empathy is like a muscle—it gets stronger the more that you exercise it. HR departments can strengthen this important workplace value by recognizing how perceptions of empathy can differ amongst colleagues. Take steps to accommodate these varying perceptions, and you can differentiate your workplace for your employees today, as well as for those in the future.
Get the full study below.