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Empowering Empathy: Effectuating Diversity and Inclusion Policies in the Workplace

February 15, 2021

Lindsay K. Bunting Eubanks

Sands Anderson PC

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Richmond, Virginia

When contention and disagreement seem to permeate all aspects of public life, employers face real challenges in creating healthy, diverse, and inclusive working environments. Diversity and inclusion initiatives not only often benefit the bottom line, allowing the richness of different perspectives to enhance the work product and create a more productive working environment, these initiatives also safeguard employers against liability for discriminatory practices.  However, what can an employer do when different viewpoints inevitably collide and cause conflict? One often overlooked tool in creating true community in the workplace is the power of empathy. Forbes recently called empathy “the crème de la crème of all leadership traits.”[1] The Journal of Business and Psychology recently published a study, which found that “taking the perspective of others may have a lasting positive effect on diversity-related outcomes by increasing individuals’ internal motivation to respond without prejudice.”[2]

Undoubtedly, employers who foster empathy through empathy-based training also foster emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence comes with a heightened ability to listen and to understand individuals who think and look differently from you. Empathy helps us to ask questions and to seek out more information before rushing to judgement or acting upon the hidden implicit bias with which we all struggle. Exposure is the key. As explained by Robert Livingston, in the Harvard Business Review, “Empathy is critical for making progress toward racial equity because it affects whether individuals or organizations take any action and if so, what kind of action they take. There are at least four ways to respond to racism: join in and add to the injury, ignore it and mind your own business, experience sympathy and bake cookies for the victim, or experience empathic outrage and take measures to promote equal justice.”[3]

So, here are some pragmatic ways to increase empathy and emotional intelligence in your workplace:

(1) Rewrite your organizational values clearly and succinctly and publish these values on your website and employee handbook.

Clearly expressed and understood by all employees, bold organizational values can set the stage and help heighten emotional intelligence. After all, empathy, i.e., seeing the world through another’s perspective, can do more than make others feel welcome; it can integrate and harmonize our many differences and create an ideal company culture. Who wouldn’t want that?

(2) Introduce empathy-based training for all employees and managers in your organization.

We all start at different points on the emotional intelligence scale, but effective training tools can help employees foster their ability to listen effectively and internalize the perspective of others. Once employees feel they are on the same team and valued by their colleagues, then productivity is sure to increase, as well as profitability. This new, more inclusive workplace culture will reduce the struggles and costs associated with poor employee retention. What employer would not want to keep the employee whom they worked so hard to train?

(3) Serve together.

When an organization provides opportunities to volunteer together, not only does this effort develop a feeling of community among colleagues, it also fosters an understanding for the difficulties and differences between ourselves and others. It helps us to see outside of our own little bubbles and to broaden our experience by integrating the experiences and perspectives of those who come from a different place.[4]

So, as you start this new year, employers, don’t forget to include the tool of empathy in your efforts to shape a more inclusive and accepting work community. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Lindsay Bunting Eubanks is an associate in Sands Anderson’s Labor & Employment group and a member of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The Committee leads the firm’s efforts to expand its pipeline of talent; to retain that talent; and to implement other strategies to bring more women, minorities, and other historically underrepresented communities into our profession. For more information, please visit our Committee page.

[1] See Janice Gassam Asare, Empathy: The Key to a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace, Forbes (Sept. 25, 2018, 2:13 p.m. EDT), available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2018/09/25/empathy-the-key-to-a-diverse-and-inclusive-workplace/?sh=336cac770971.

[2] See Lindsey, A. et al., The Impact of Method, Motivation, and Empathy on Diversity Training Effectiveness, Journal of Bus. & and Psych. 30, 605–617 (2015), available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-014-9384-3.

[3] See Robert Livingston, How to Promote Racial Equity in the Workplace, Harvard Bus. Rev. (September–October 2020),  available at https://hbr.org/2020/09/how-to-promote-racial-equity-in-the-workplace.

[4] See Gassam Asare, supra note 1.