Lead by listening: How HR leaders can impact the unexpected employee experience

When television’s Mr. Rogers was a young boy, worried about frightening world events, his mother advised him to look for the “helpers.” Looking for the helpers meant identifying the professionals and regular citizens who stepped up to aid and become resources for people who needed it.

Although that conversation took place nearly a century ago, the sentiment– and the need for it– are just as necessary today, if not more so.

In the last three years, employees have faced uncommon stresses from a global pandemic, political discord and global and local unrest. This is on top of the usual pressures many people face from work, relationships, finances and health. The tragic events in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine and Russia cause additional distress no matter where people live. As employees try to cope, they increasingly look to company leaders to be the “helpers” by providing support.

While leaders are used to offering professional encouragement, employees want more. They want authentic, personal and holistic support to address the impact these issues have on their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Why leaders must answer the call

Whether leaders are in the c-suite, frontline, or informal management roles, they need to answer the call to help. Aside from this being the right thing to do from a human standpoint, there are business reasons for doing this too. Studies confirm that employees who feel heard are more engaged, which leads to greater retention and productivity. And there’s more research that notes compassionate leaders foster better job performance and satisfaction, organizational support and loyalty. These factors strengthen the culture of an organization and contribute to employee wellbeing.

It’s not always easy to know how to respond when employees are hurting. But ignoring the situation is detrimental, says Jamie Viramontes, CEO of Konnect, an HR service company. “If you don’t check in, you’re sending a strong message that could be interpreted as not caring about your people or what is happening. Or that you don’t want to create a safe place for them. That could be very damaging to your relationship with your team and to your company culture.”

How to answer the call

During the pandemic, leaders became compassionate helpers as employees navigated uncertain times. Now, new world events reinforce that the stressors employees face aren’t going away and that the need for compassionate leadership isn’t isolated to one crisis. Instead, leaders need to keep their “helper” skills primed for continuous use. Viramontes says that helping employees starts by having conversations. 

“When a crisis arises, acknowledge the issue, even if that is difficult,” he says. “Ask employees how they’re doing. Say, ‘I want to check in with you and make sure you’re okay.’”

Then, listen to the response. “That in itself is strong,” he adds.

Viramontes says showing empathy is critical, even if the leader doesn’t feel the impact of a crisis in the same way as their employees. “It’s hard when you can’t relate or don’t know what to say. But you can be empathetic,” Viramontes says. “Be curious. Be respectful but ask questions and know it’s okay to not have solutions.”

Be flexible, when possible. Employees may need time away or time to gather. Ask them what might help and try to meet those needs.

Sometimes, leaders worry that starting a difficult conversation is like opening Pandora’s Box. Viramontes says leaders think employees may expect the company to take a political stance or may be disappointed if the company asks for feedback but doesn’t act on those recommendations.

“The key is to ensure that employees know they are heard. Acknowledge their feelings and the ways you can help them.” Viramontes adds that companies should be transparent about their response to employees’ recommendations and feedback.

Gaining the skills and HR expertise to be a helper

Even experienced leaders may doubt their ability to lead employees through difficult times. But Viramontes says many leaders are more prepared than they think. “There are skills you may think you don’t have, but you do, such as listening.”

When leaders require additional skills for the new phase of management, HR can recommend leadership development courses and opportunities like mentoring or involvement in employee resource groups.

Keep in mind that leaders feel the stresses too. They and their employees can benefit by leaning on the company’s employee assistance program (EAP), with experts trained to counsel and coach people in difficult times.

Just as leaders and employees may need support, so might HR. In addition to the  EAP, HR leaders can also seek resources when they don’t have the capacity or professional knowledge in specific area needed to keep HR operations running smoothly. Outsourcing tasks and functions, from HR strategy to recruiting, helps organizations ensure their initiatives and processes stay on track.

Stressful events can’t be avoided or ignored. But by integrating skills like listening, empathy and compassion as regular aspects of management, leaders become the “helpers” that enable companies–and their employees–create a resilient and strong foundation for the future.