4 Ideas for Balancing Accountability With Empathy

A group of coworkers collaborate

This year I had the privilege of returning to the SHRM national conference to speak on everyone’s favorite subject—ethics. This is where I can feel your subtle laughter through the screen as you read this. As I took the stage and finished my hourlong session, we had several discussions around what it means to be an ethical decision-maker. I set up a few key points to consider as people in business who deal with difficult situations navigate providing ethical HR while balancing what’s best for the business. Striking this balance isn’t always easy, however, finding the balance is crucial to doing well in today’s job market. According to FTSE Russell, companies that care about the whole person, not just the employee at work, outperform the market by 16.5%. This means that if your organization makes the adjustments needed to adapt, the impact will be felt not only in the retention of top talent, but also in the performance of the organization as a whole.

Post session, my co-author Susan and I discussed the idea of empathy versus accountability in the workplace. What is the threshold for managers, people leaders, and the organization when it comes to understanding employees and running a business? Below are a few key things that will help you navigate this difficult space.

1. Trust fosters the harmonization of accountability and empathy.

In my role as a consultant, it’s been an interesting switch for businesses to return to work and expect that culture, environment, and the people will be the same. I ask in every session, “How many of you are the same person since pre-pandemic?” As you can imagine, no one raises their hand. We witnessed such great change over the last two years, including an increase in understanding as a society that we need to take care of ourselves, and organizations need to be accommodating of that. So much so, that sometimes accountability was set aside to meet the needs of employees during the most dire points of the pandemic.

As we move forward, organizations need to figure out how to strike a balance: how to provide their employees with the support needed for a work-life balance, while also ensuring that the business moves forward. To find this balance, trust and transparency across the organization is vital. People need to feel safe coming to their managers when issues outside the workplace arise and impact their standard work schedule, and managers need to trust that their people will have accountability for the tasks they have on their plate. One way managers can build this trust is with open communication and regular check-ins with their people. The use of HR technology can also help managers keep track of their people beyond one-on-one conversations with the use of data. Manager-related insights available through the use of HR technology can help them gather people data and digest the insights to make educated decisions, look for room to accommodate employee requests, and ensure that there is coverage available to guarantee business continuity.

2. Know your people and learn how they operate—beyond job function.

Team dynamics. Here we go again. For some reason a switch turned off when organizations started requiring employees to come back to the office. In some sense, for those employees who weren’t remote before and now are, they’ve gotten comfortable in their situation. There is nothing wrong with this. Where managers and organizations are missing the mark is not taking the time to understand how the change has affected their people and how their situation has evolved over the last two years. There has to be a sense of ownership—for employees and managers alike—to ensure operationally that things don’t have to be the way they were before.

These circumstances provide a major retention opportunity for organizations to shift the way they think and branch out to understand the “new team” dynamics they are facing. In a tight labor market, the differentiator for business continuity is going beyond the traditional, “How are you doing?” and shifting it to, “What’s going on in your personal life?”  

3. Set boundaries but know where you can bend.

I’d challenge you to think through how you make decisions. What makes you empathize or drive accountability? Logistically speaking, running a business requires a level of accountability that’s commonly understood. So, you must ask yourself: Where is my boundary of personal vs. professional when it comes to empathy and accountability to make effective decisions? This is where the use of sound operations data comes in. As discussed before, if you’re able to see your organization from a bird’s-eye view through an unbiased lens, your managers will be able to take the freshest, most accurate data into consideration and empathize with the situations their people encounter. This allows them to make business decisions that help your people, while ensuring they won’t impact the business.

Additionally, being transparent about your organization’s policies will help your people know what the boundaries are for their role. A great way to do this is by using HR technology and providing your people with a company hub that houses all company policies in an easily accessible location. 

4. Empathy in the workplace starts with strong leaders.

When creating a work environment that balances both holding people accountable to the rules and requirements of their position and one that is empathetic, it comes down to how managers lead their people. If this culture is promoted but not carried out by your managers, the environment you’re trying to build will be tough to create. Effective decision making starts with self-awareness and manager training on this is key. HR technology that offers learning software as well will provide your managers with a convenient place to access courses and provide the tools needed to learn how to navigate these sometimes difficult situations with their people.

Conclusion: Bending today will avoid breaks in your workforce in the future.

Since 2020 the way we work has changed and therefore the way we manage our people has too. We learned valuable lessons about work-life balance and the importance of taking care of our people. For this reason, to retain top talent organizations need to be flexible, create a culture of trust and understanding, and provide managers with the tools needed, such as HR technology, to make educated decisions.

If you’re ready to help your workplace balance empathy and accountability with the support of HR technology, check out our Small HR Team’s Guide to Executive Communication to help get your organization’s leadership on board and make a positive impact for your people.

Chas recently contributed a story on top takeaways from SHRM and is the co-host of The People Purpose Podcast by The Workforce Institute.

Susan recently contributed a story on 3 remote work compliance policies you should consider.