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Don’t Discount Soft Skills: How Leading with Empathy Helps Companies Survive Hardship

empathy and recruiter soft skills

We don’t need to state the obvious, but in the current climate where unpredictability and adaptability might be the new normal for many companies, remaining empathetic and keeping empathy in mind might allow your company to survive the hardship. 

So what place does empathy have in a business context? Barack Obama described empathy as: “..seeing the world through the eyes of those who are different from us.” To learn more, we sat down with brand strategist and author of The Empathy Edge, Maria Ross. Here is a recap of our interview.

Q: How should companies approach employees and candidates with empathy?

Ross: We are dealing with the most age-diverse workforce we’ve ever had. Often there are four generations under one roof with different needs, etc. Incoming talent generations are looking for a place that looks like a second family — not just a title or salary. They have to be engaged quickly or they will lose interest. They are looking for belonging, mentorship and opportunity.

Some stats by generation:

This begs companies to ask themselves: How is the company treating all stakeholders and employees? Employees don’t want to work for you if it’s not a socially responsible company. Now with coronavirus, companies may also need to ask themselves what that means. Have they adjusted their sick day policy? Are they allowing employees to work remotely right now? 

The 2019 State of Workplace Empathy report by Business Solver found that 98% of employees feel it’s important for employers to display empathy.

Q: How can companies display that they are empathetic in general?

Ross: Flexible work schedules, sick pay, paid family leave, mental health assistance. All of these are markers that many employees consider to be empathetic. If the company isn’t walking the walk, 8/10 employees would leave if it’s not an empathetic place to be.

The vast majority of new employees will also work longer for less money, in some cases, for empathetic employers. That says employees are looking for something different to motivate them. People want to align personal values with where they work everyday. Ask more questions about culture, mentorship, and values during the interview process to show this matters.

A Deloitte study revealed that Millennials and Gen Z are among the most diverse generations ever to enter the workforce, with 29% of them coming from immigrant backgrounds. The report also revealed some of what these incoming talent generations expect from employers.

  • Cognitive diversity: The ability to harness diverse points of view for better business outcomes, not just have diversity for representation’s sake
  • Having a voice: They grew up in a time where they are used to everyone from any background having a voice – and expect that to continue at work. The way they see it, good ideas can come from anywhere.
  • Better business decisions: Given their focus on cognitive diversity, they see having no women or people of color on the board or executive team as a sign of poor decision making. 

 Q: How do you screen top talent for empathy?

Ross: Companies need to set up interviewing that screens beyond empathy, and find ways to do this when a candidate might be remote. A lot of this comes down to asking the right questions to assess for empathy.

Some good questions to screen for empathy are:

  • Tell me about some disagreements where you found common ground.
  • How do you deal with an employee in crisis?
  • How well do you collaborate and communicate? What about negotiating?
  • How do you react and try to contribute when there is tension?

Also, a good thing for employers to note is to be clear about your values in the interview process. Try to give real-time feedback in the interview if possible, and see if they take the feedback. Assess as well for cultural fit and culture add.

Q: What are signs you can look for that signify empathy?

Ross: In an interview for my book, The Empathy Edge, fascination expert Sally Hogshead says that, based on extensive research that gifted talkers make ideal customer service reps. She says, “If somebody is really good at using an engaging type of conversational style, it’s going to be very easy for them to be at the front lines doing customer service and to be interacting with people all the time.” I agree with her observations that empathy requires a certain degree of connection and sensitivity. But it doesn’t mean someone who is not a great conversationalist does not have a strong empathetic mindset or can’t learn to flex that muscle more. They absolutely can – being a great conversationalist is but one marker. We can all apply empathy to strengthen bonds with each other, especially in times of more distance.

Other markers she advises to look for are if a candidate is being considerate, attentive, and dedicated. It shows they are seeking connection. The more that you can give them scenarios from the real business to see what they think, the better. For example, ask them how they would deal with how a team that is split on where to go? If the metrics are saying one thing, but customers saying another, how would they find the right path forward?

Another good marker is a candidate who asks a lot of questions in interviews about company culture or about getting to know more about the company and its customers – rather than just focusing on sharing their own accomplishments. Curiosity is a key trait of highly empathic people. Displaying how they dealt with any failure in the past also shows humility in candidates.

In the book The Empathy Edge, we talk about many empathy builders, including: practicing presence, listening with humility, curiosity, cultivating confidence, and finding common ground. Looking for these traits are all great signals for hiring an empathetic employee.

Q: How can you apply empathy to when you have to tell candidates (or employees) bad news? 

Ross: One of the best ways for employers to exhibit an empathetic lens is in realizing that the receiving end might not feel great when given the news. A helpful way to do this is to leave them with useful feedback. Come from a lens for how they may take the information and don’t just tell them why they weren’t enough. Paint a positive impression of the brand after and never close the door — whether it’s letting them know they didn’t get a job opportunity or letting an employee go. Ask them what they might need in terms of support. That way when you turn them down, you still maintain a level of empathy when doing so.

Final thoughts: Leveraging empathy to drive performance

“Another great thing that seems to be taking over the recruiting space is to apply a scenario-based interview process,” says Ross. “This will up-level recruiting.” Ross goes on to explain that if candidates are in a sales role, they are likely the most competitive people that have other opportunities. The more that you can put them in real-life situations for the work that they’ll be doing in the future — the better for both parties.

Encouraging an empathetic culture can also save companies from angry customers and bring customer lifetime value to any company. Remember as you hire and communicate to employees: Employees are your brand ambassadors. “Recruiters need to hire to protect the brand of the company, not just do the job. It’s not just about the hard skills, but the soft skills that count even more,” says Ross.

If you’re wondering how to get started, check out Maria’s free The 5 Business Benefits of Empathy. And to learn more about great screening questions to ask in the interview, download our guide, 101+ Interview Questions to Hire Quality Candidates Faster.