SHRM’s Taylor Calls for HR to Practice ‘Radical Empathy’

Global HR

​LAS VEGAS — On what is arguably one of the most emotional days in U.S. history—the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, profoundly inspired thousands of in-person and virtual attendees at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021. He delivered a resounding message of unity and shared a common goal for HR professionals who are facing unprecedented challenges seemingly everywhere they look.

HR professionals, in their own way, have been part of America’s first responders during the pandemic, social justice upheaval and divisive election season, Taylor said. They have taken care of their workforces and families on a grueling, daily basis, facing an avalanche of new regulations and supporting anxious employees who must perform while often experiencing mental health issues brought on by these difficult times.

Taylor began by taking a moment to salute emergency services, military and health care workers who were on the scene of the attacks on Sept. 11, inviting 10 on stage to be honored with applause and warm appreciation.

Taylor next focused on SHRM employee Andrew Morton, who served in Iraq and is now director of certification and veteran affairs for the organization. Morton experienced long-lasting emotional and physical injuries from his tours of duty and said he coped with them initially by withdrawing from emotional attachments to family and friends. A “completely changed person,” as Morton described himself, he began his recovery three years ago after seeking help and being supported by “compassionate leaders” at SHRM.

Another special guest was Opal Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” who shared her life story and inspirational thoughts with the audience. Juneteenth—or June 19—commemorates the day enslaved Black individuals in Galveston, Texas, finally were able to experience freedom, as Union soldiers arrived to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation—nearly three years after it was made. (See Opal Lee Sparkles with Her Own Brand of Advocacy.)

Compassion Is a Renewable Resource

Taylor’s primary message was to set forth the path HR professionals must take to continue to bring their companies out of the debilitating pandemic environment.

“Sometimes these days, it seems as if empathy and compassion are dwindling resources, but they are our best weapon against cynicism and despair,” Taylor said. “In fact, empathy and compassion are our only truly renewable resources.

“All of us here today have the means and obligation to tap this endless capacity in ourselves, in our workforce and in our society. We must use what we learned over the past 18 months and nurture the empathy to create a more just, equitable and sustainable workplace.”

Me-pathy Vs. Empathy

Taylor matter-of-factly brought to light some of the unhealthy behaviors and attitudes in the HR profession.

“Let me give it to you straight,” he said. “HR people can be the most judgmental and biased in the workplace. Our profession is famous for weeding out ‘undesirable’ job candidates: the older worker, the woman in the wheelchair, the one with the accent. ‘Where’s your college degree?’ ‘You have a criminal record?’ ‘You’re not working here!’

“And we do these things all the while thinking we are just looking for the best talent. I think each of us in this room could use a little introspection. To hold a mirror up to ourselves and our practice of HR.

“Which of our policies are unintentionally and unfairly picking winners and losers? Are our ‘safe spaces’ really safe for everyone and not just for people we think need a safe space? Are we living up to our organizational values, or are we sometimes letting things slide because of who the person is or their rank within the organization? Are we treating people equitably versus equally?

“I urge you to challenge outdated beliefs and practices and use empathy to make a more open, accessible, inclusive, diverse and equitable workforce.”

Taylor spoke of what SHRM’s Chief Knowledge Officer Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, calls “me-pathy,” or the opposite of empathy: “the action of wanting everyone to accept and embrace your own differences without reciprocation,” Taylor explained.

“Empathy means putting yourself in the place of the other, without judgment or bias, and trying to understand their unique lived experiences—the ones that shaped them and the ones that make them act and say what they do.”

See Others’ Differences

Taylor encouraged the audience to see others’ differences—not only those that may be obvious, such as race, gender and age, but also those that are not so obvious, like neuro- or physical diversity. “And, yes, that includes differences in political opinions and life choices,” he said. “See them. Then give them space to be their best, and to have difficult conversations when friction inevitably happens.”

That is when empathy is hardest, Taylor said, and bravery is vital. “[Empathy] asks us not to overlook differences, but to try to understand their lived experiences—and to put those different experiences to work for your organization.”

He encouraged HR leaders to adopt a culture of radical empathy and to address the empathy deficit. “In a society that has never been more divided, challenge yourself [and] challenge your leaders to make empathy the employee benefit that differentiates your culture from your competitors’ culture,” he said.

Attendees took Taylor’s messages to heart. Febbie Martin, director of HR at Hi Hope Service Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., said, “My journey through the HR profession has always been one where I express empathy. There are times when I felt like maybe taking this approach made me an outlier. What I heard today [from Taylor] is that I’m doing things the right way. I’m on the path I should be. I appreciated that he called out the industry a bit.”

Erica Ramirez, HR director for Custom Veterinary Services in Miami, is a first-time SHRM Annual Conference attendee who had never heard Taylor speak before. “I’ve considered leaving this profession and have given it a lot of thought recently,” Ramirez said. “What [Taylor] said today was totally inspiring. He changed my mind. He told me what I needed to hear. HR is not a ‘me’ movement; it’s an ‘us’ movement.”

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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