HR and the decline of empathy


I wrote to my HR department to tell them I had had some emergency treatment. What I got back surprised me, an admission that they knew nothing about it – contractual sickness terms  –  and a sign off that reads

Please let me know if I can do anything else to help at this stage and I hope you are soon back at work.

From “Welfare” to “well being”.

It was not that long ago that “staff welfare” was the #1 priority of HR departments, now they seem to be a risk mitigation function ensuring companies cannot be sued by employees with an eye to the main chance.

Compliance with IS 9000 is a KPI for our company so when staff “fare badly” , they become part of the risk-register. In this blog I argue that process cannot has to put staff welfare – nor corporate risk mitigation as its focus.

Staff welfare or “well-being” as it’s now been rebranded, is a very simple concept that does not require a 900 page staff handbook and a battalion of lawyers. It starts  in sympathy. As sympathy is no longer in the HR lexicon let me remind myself what it means

“feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”.

You can express sympathy but not be believed, to be believed you have to show “empathy”. Empathy can be defined as

the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position”

It is not enough to have sympathetic thoughts, there needs to be more, you need to see and feel things from someone else’s point of view.

When we commoditise welfare – we get to well-being, a “measurable” that turns HR into a branch of risk management. Welfare is more than can be achieved through process; HR due process is an abstract notion linked to productivity and compliance.


The real problem with HR as risk mitigation

Sympathy is easy, you can cut and paste it from any HR manual, but empathy is hard, it’s dead hard – because it means trying to understand where someone is coming from.

The compliance approach to HR assumes that staff are always coming at an issue with a wish to escalate for personal self-gain. If the assumption is that behind each mail or letter there is an ambulance chaser then the chance to see things from your staff’s point of view goes out the window. The mail I got from HR read like a legal disclaimer and I guess that it did a good job of protecting the company’s position.

But it made me feel mad! I’m already back at work- I never left work. I love First Actuarial , I don’t want to bend the rules! I’m a Director, I have duties to my company!

I didn’t need a lecture but I got one

“You’ll appreciate that under such circumstance we will offer as much support as is possible but our contractual sickness terms apply to all employees”

The real problem with “HR as risk mitigation” is it makes  worried and scared people even more worried and scared. It puts up the barriers turning sympathy into hollow words. Empathy has no chance – this is all about them and nothing about you.

Personnel means people

I didn’t want a lecture, I wanted a cuddle. I wanted someone in my company to give me sympathy (with empathy).

And I am sure up and down the country, people are reading this and asking the same question. Whatever happened to staff welfare, to the personnel officer to the  “get well soon card” or similar.

Nowadays, that empathic sympathy comes through social media where people feel free to issue an emotional response to situations without fear of litigation.  Thanks to all – most especially to Gareth and Andrew for the kind gift!

It is a shame that companies feel unable to do staff welfare but I fear that is what has happened,

Personnel used to mean people- now people are a commodity – a human resource employed to maximise profit. Yet the companies in Britain that have survived longest, have done so because they look after their people.

I think of Bournville, Port Sunlight and I think of WeWork – these are places where the basic principles of looking after each other emanate from work.

Personnel means people and can still mean people. I know our HR people they are great. But they shouldn’t forget that for all their accreditations, they are about staff welfare and there are times that even ISO 9000 falls short.



About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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8 Responses to HR and the decline of empathy

  1. John Mather says:

    What you are experiencing is the creeping box ticking regime that is supposed to replace personal responsibility it is the drag on productivity the world over. Out of fashion is adherence to ethics, responsibility and a sense of fair play. Don’t give up though you will find that All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. (Schopenhauer)

  2. Auntysocial says:

    Oh God few things rile me like HR tricks they can be absolutely shocking.

    I’m from a legal background, later went into Health and Social Care, managed large teams of staff in different settings. Now work adhoc as a compliance specialist / inspector and either go in and help with more in-depth areas that need really looking into and / or help places that aren’t up to scratch but do want to improve and need help to get things turned round and back on the up.

    Everyone has at some point the need for time off or difficult personal circumstances or something that needs them to take time off sometimes with very short or no notice and we all know what that’s like and how much worry it can be on top of everything else.
    How you treat your staff generally but more so when they are having a rough time will make or break everything. There are always the odd few that will swing the lead and take liberties but you can’t assume either way up because everyone has their own circumstance.

    If I had staff contact me to say they needed emergency treatment like you did I’d probably respond to say thanks for letting me know, feel free to come in for a chat if you need anything or there’s anything I can do to help in the meantime and hope you’re feeling better soon.

    You’d think the HR lot would have the sense to realise if nothing else it makes them look better if they can show on paper they made an effort to look after you, ask if they could do anything to accommodate and make things easier, safer or more comfortable whilst at work but not pry and increase stress and worry by going full tick box tastic.

    I’d be so tempted to reply to HR and ask what the policy or limit is for advising them about illness or injury that doesn’t actually require time off or action from them and if they would prefer you didn’t bother to show them to keep them informed or show common courtesy in the future.

    Anyway I hope you’re feeling better and on the mend. HR can shove it up their arse 🙂


  3. Auntysocial says:

    And another thing (You’ve started something now!) I once had a stand-off with a regulatory inspector who told me I had to develop and implement an equality and diversity policy to employ so many staff from an ethnic minority background. We only had one full Asian care assistant and one part time bank and by rights we should have at least X staff to meet regulations. Told her when she was there and first brought it up I don’t employ anyone to satisfy tick boxes. I employ people that are appropriate, suitable, competent and able to work with and care for elderly vulnerable people. Don’t give a toss what gender, race or sexual orientation we could have had a team of staff that were like the united colours of Benetton for me but they had to be right for the job.

    We got the draft report back from her few weeks later and she’d marked us down and written in what would be a public report that we “weren’t meeting the standards for staffing and recruitment, the inspector discussed concerns regarding how we recruited and employed staff and we were required to address this shortfall” That was it – straight on the phone firstly to her and then to her line manager.

    Absolutely livid and said to her manager all this was explained during the inspection, I’d told her how and why I would not take on staff purely to meet some dogshit equality and diversity policy. Might work and be relevant in other workplaces but in ours, we are caring for very vulnerable, often very confused people who need the right people to give them round the clock quite often complex care. They were more than welcome to speak with the two staff if they ware concerned we might be some sort of racist getup if they wanted but I would not let that report go out and give members of public the impression we didn’t take enough care when employing people.

    The way it was worded sounded like we took on anyone and everyone it didn’t say what they were worried about so if it had to go and stay in, I wanted them to say exactly what the concerns were so anyone reading it wasn’t given the wrong idea.
    Got a call back within 24hrs from the regional manager full of apologies, assuring me the whole thing would be redrafted to meet all standards and we were having a new inspector allocated to us.

    I thanked her for calling me back and taking the time but it really, really irked me they were trying to pull that crap and either bully me into employing staff that might not be suitable to keep them off my back or making us look bad to anyone that went online and read the report.

  4. con keating says:

    Be a little careful Henry, much of the “rebranding” of welfare as “well-being”is a calculated encroachment upon the NHS by US health care providers. The thin end of a most unwelcome wedge.

  5. Adrian furnell says:

    Henry.could not agree more but as a Director surely you have some clout to get your own HR dept to change/amend the way it goes about this issue?

  6. Brian Kent says:

    Henry – It disappeared nearly 50 years ago, when Boards saw the ‘lazy’ wisdom of replacing ‘Personnel’ with easy to manipulate HR.

  7. JHA says:

    You are back at work already!!! Health and safety should mean that you take at least six months off convalescing followed by a “return to work” program strictly enforced by an HR mentor to ensure there is no risk to the business over the next six months. Coming back as you have has done somebody out of a job and probably increased the liability insurance premium! How could you have been so irresponsible!!!
    (Tongue in cheek!!)
    Good to see you are back and raging as usual.

  8. Hello Henry,

    I have been in HR for about 13 years now. I am very passionate about people and in bringing the human back to human resources (or personnel). So, yes, this is an admission that I know for a fact HR sometimes can be very administrative that has lost the human touch or highly operational just always thinking about the Company. As such it is these types of experiences that disappoint me. I hope you know that this is not 100% true of all HR teams and HR pratictioners. Lastly, thanks for sharing this as this contributes to my drive to continue promoting an HR organization with the heart and can and would always empathize.

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