The Need for Empathy Training

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A common understanding of the term “empathy” is that it describes the ability of a person to share and understand the feelings of another.

What is not a common understanding is whether this ability for empathy is a skill or a trait. If it is the latter, empathy as a trait implies that it is part of one’s personal character. Either you have it or you don’t. If it is the former, empathy as a skill moves into the realm of something that can be learned, nurtured, and developed.

An exploration of skill-based empathy is provided in this TedxTalk by Jamil Zaki.

Jamil Zaki identifies this new view of empathy as a trainable skill. His examples show that empathy develops and adapts at an emotional level to a specific environment. Empathy, according to Zaki, is not a natural state, and it is one that may need to be enforced in order to grow. It is hard to do and may require incentives—as he notes in the female-male approaches—for continued development. As we learn with any other skill, the more reasons we have to practice it, the more motivation we’ll have, and the better we’ll become at the process of becoming and being empathetic.

How does this type of skill development translate into our current workplaces? In the video, Zaki provides an example of empathy training for police services in the state of Washington. This type of training resulted in a proven decline in the use of force by police officers, especially in situations where they had to interact with people who experienced mental illness.

This type of empathy-based training program has been adapted within a Canadian context as well. By using virtual reality technology, Halton police services implemented an empathy training program for its officers as noted in this article.

Through situational simulations, police officers learn what it feels like to be a person in crisis who has autism, schizophrenia, or is experiencing suicidal thoughts. As the virtual experience provides the feeling of a person in crisis, police officers can better understand how to adapt their own approach to a real-life situation. With a different mindset, police officers can focus on de-escalation and the need to “minimize the stress of the person in crisis in real-life scenarios.”

It is not just the use of technology-based training that makes this approach a “game changer.” It is the repeated practice of empathy-based skills development that can truly change the world.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think empathy is a trait or a skill? Explain your rationale.
  2. Besides police services, what other types of industries or workplaces would benefit from empathy-based training?
  3. What can you do to develop your own empathy-related skills? How can you apply these skills in your current or future work environment?

Employee Orientation from Administrative to Strategic


For decades, the HR world has been spouting the following statements on an endless verbal loop:

  • Move all HR practices from an administrative to a strategic focus
  • Employees are our best assets
  • Develop a culture of employee engagement for success

The assumption is that if HR does all of the above, everything will be perfect; however, HR never really does these things. They usually do the exact opposite of what they believe in. Let’s look at what HR usually does during new employee orientations.

On an employee’s first day, HR inundates the new employee with administrative policies and procedures, which are nothing more than strict guidelines and rules that demean the new employee’s intelligence. Then, the HR professional is shocked when the employee does not embrace their culture of engagement. This orientation merry-go-round is happening on a perpetual loop at most organizations.

Successful employee onboarding, or orientation, is not about learning HR’s administrative rules. According to John Hilton, in his article “4 ways onboarding processes must change,” successful employee onboarding is about submerging employees in the organization’s culture, and the key to making employees engaged and productive in their new positions. This is noted by Hilton, when he states, “There’s a misconception that an intensive onboarding experience requires a high administrative burden.”

Additionally, Hilton suggests some ideas on how HR can successfully transition from an administrative to a strategic focus:

  • Engage employees’ emotions
  • Explain that organizational culture and behaviours are not just about meeting administrative goals on paper
  • Automate lower value activities
  • Focus all orientation activities with the intent to expose employees to the organizational culture

HR professionals know that onboarding sets the tone for the quality of long-term employee engagement. So, when HR creates an onboarding process with intention, it sets the tone for sparking a higher level of long-term employee engagement and productivity.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Research and identify if there is a difference between employee orientation and employee onboarding. State and defend your position.
  2. Research and find an organization that has an exceptional onboarding program. Summarize the main elements of their program.
  3. What would you present to your VP of HR to demonstrate the value of a strategic onboarding program?

Fast Food and Free Tuition

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has over 80,000 employees and 2,500 restaurants, and they are making a move as bold as their hot sauce. Chipotle is starting to offer its employees (who have been with the company for at least 120 days) free college tuition to earn a degree in 75 different business and technology programs in several educational institutions. Click here to read in greater detail about Chipotle’s innovative approach to valuing their employees.

This may be Chipotle’s next big move to ensure business success, because whatever it is they’re doing, it’s been working, according to their business results from the 2nd quarter of 2019:

  • Revenue up 13% to $1.4 billion
  • Net income of $91 million
  • Operating margins up over 20%
  • Expansion plan, including opening an average of 150 new stores next year

The question is why would Chipotle spend so much money on employee education? The most obvious answer is that they’re trying to improve their ability to recruit employees in a very tight labour market, but all HR professionals know that labour markets are cyclical, and there will always be ups and downs in hiring trends. This alone is not enough to sway an organization to commit to such an expensive employee educational benefit program.

Let’s take a closer look at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.’s organizational philosophy, and the place to start is with their mission statement:

Cultivate a Better World

What better way to “cultivate a better world” than to provide free education? There seems to be great benefit to a powerful mission statement. This can be seen on Chipotle’s company site on Comparably, where 100% of their employees said they were motivated by their mission statement.

It is inspiring to see an organization that is trying to make a difference, and is willing to spend resources to make that difference.

Discussion Question:

Research other companies in the fast food industry that are providing some type of educational support and/or benefits. Once complete, imagine you are a VP of HR in that industry; what type of educational support and benefits would you recommend to your CEO, and why?

Team Learning = Team Building


Team building is a concept that has been around for a long time. No matter how team structures in organizations have been put together, there has always been a focus on how to improve the relationships between, and the productivity of, those who are ‘forced’ to work together. Most of us have choices about who/whom we want to spend our time with, and how much time we want to spend with them, outside of the work environment. Within a work setting, however, we may not have people and time options as we have to spend a set amount of time together with workplace colleagues who have been chosen for us. Given how much time is spent together each and every day with others in the workplace, it is no wonder that organizations continue to focus on how to nurture effective teams through on-going training programs that develop group learning processes.

An interesting article from 2001 outlines the positive impact of group learning on the long-term effects of team building.

Click here to read the article on group learning and team building.

While dated, the article reinforces concepts of team training and group development that are still relevant in today’s organizational learning culture. Many companies continue to offer team retreats where colleagues can challenge each other (and themselves) through various physical activities – such as Tree-top Trekking and Rock-wall Climbing. These adventure-based sessions are used to build trust and team accountability, which should translate back into the work environment in a productive way.

In addition to these physical or traditional team building efforts, the opportunities to apply learning that develops team problem solving and brainstorming skills are on the rise. For example, creative team building options come with access to events such as ‘Escape Rooms’ where participants must work together using ‘mental capacities’ such as ‘brainpower’ and ‘logic’.

Click here to read about ‘Escape Rooms’ as a team learning program.

No matter what or how the opportunities are provided into the future, what has not changed is the understanding that good teams come from forming good relationships, sharing good learning, and experiencing good times together.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Thinking of the team you work with most recently, which type of team learning session would be more challenging for the group – ‘Tree-top Trekking’ or ‘Escape Room’? Explain your rationale.
  2. What are the cost-benefits, based on the investment of both time and money for adventure based learning, in the development of team-based organization culture and productivity?
  3. How does informal team-building impact work-place productivity? Do you agree that it is beneficial? Explain your rationale.

Investing in the Employment Relationship

One of the most effective employee training programs, that HR Professionals can provide, is new employee Onboarding.

Bringing new employees into an organization represents a significant commitment.  Not just from a monetary cost perspective, but more importantly, from a long-term investment into the employment relationship.  HR recruitment and selection programs spend an immense amount of time and money ensuring that the right person is hired into our organizations.  That investment must continue to be nurtured by ensuring that the newly hired employee is integrated into the cultural fit of the organization for the long term.

Click here to read the article.

This particular program, outlined in the article above, requires a high investment of time and focused commitment within the first 90 days of employment.  Is that enough time to assess the success of employee integration?  Many provinces have employment legislation that has a similar probationary period.  It makes sense to make use of a 90 day framework in the most cost-effective way possible.

When we invest in any relationship, we want to be sure that there is an equivalent return.  The same applies for employer-employee relationships.  By checking in with our employees at the beginning of their employment journey we are checking in on our investment with the hope for a very high and long-term commitment in return.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the cost-benefit of having a new employee buddy program?
  2. Have you left a position or a workplace within the first year of your employment because you did not feel welcome? What influenced your decision to leave? What would have influenced you to stay?
  3. Identify three new employee engagement/training activities that an HR department can provide at little to no cost, within the first 90 days of employment.
  4. Identify cost-related losses that occur when an employee leaves an organization within the first year of employment.