The Business of Empathy

Learning to see employees as people

6/19/20233 min read

Yesterday I entered the associate breakroom, and three associates were enjoying their lunch. As always, I spoke to them by name as I refilled my coffee cup. In return, each of them replied to me. As I left the room, I overheard one of them say, “Coach Ed always speaks to us. I like that.” Another replied, And he calls us by our name. No one else does that.”

I spent a few minutes smiling and knowing I had impacted someone else’s life. It was nothing monumental, but in my way, I had managed to brighten up someone’s day. Something as simple as speaking to an associate and calling them by name.

It also saddened me to hear that I was the only one who managed to do that consistently. I have always made a habit of speaking to someone. I remember reading a long time ago in one of the self-improvement books I have used. Perhaps it was Dale Carnegie, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, who said people love knowing that you know who they are. I remember that to this day. When I was the VP of Operations in a previous life, I always made it my mission to walk around the building, speak to each person, and engage in conversations with them. I wanted them to look at me, not as a Big Boss who was too busy to bother with the “little people.” I wanted them to know that I cared and they were not too insignificant to matter to me.

Since yesterday's encounter, I have looked back on the last two years with this company. We have eight salaried managers and twenty hourly managers with over 400 associates in the building. Even the Store Manager and Store Lead do not engage with all the associates as they do with the management team. Undoubtedly, they know most of the associates by sight, but how many do they truly know?

As management, we know the stars and the slackers. Beyond that, as a whole, we know little about the rest of the staff. I have spent over 40 years in the business world, most in multi-unit manager or Director of Operations positions. I like to believe that I have made a difference in many people's lives. To this day, people still tell me that I am the best boss they ever had or that I inspired them to do greater things. I attended the funerals and weddings of some of my charges (I even sang at the wedding of a child of one). I knew the names of their children, spouses, and grandchildren. I cheered their successes, and I mourned their losses with them. And it took nothing more from me than to get to know them. A small price to pay for the joy of being part of their lives.

In the years since Covid-19, I have heard disparaging remarks that people don’t want to work anymore. I know that isn’t true. People don’t want to work for people and companies that undervalue them, both in time and money and in their humanity. People need time off work to recharge. They need work-life balance. They need to be understood.

For example, even though working an employee with just 8 hours between shifts is legal, it is not conducive to a good working relationship. One manager I know has no problem working someone 2-11 pm, then 11-8 pm, then 7-4 pm. In reality, they have 11-12 hours between shifts. However, this scheduling does not consider commute time, personal obligations, or the health drain this causes. These are the kinds of things that cause people to quit their jobs. It signals that business is more important than those who run it. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group (airlines,cruises, mobile, etc) said this “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” It is no wonder that Virgin is considered to be a great place to work.

The takeaway is this: investing your time in an employee to learn about them costs nothing. The benefits are great. Happier employees make companies money. Disabused or ignored employees can sink a company.

What do you think?