Lacking Empathy

Lacking Empathy

empathyAs a project manager, I personally believe empathy is one of the most important virtues.  I think it’s one of those attributes that makes us most human.  You can’t expect to take care of your team, or even customers, if you are unable to be empathetic.  Regardless if you can help someone, ask anyway.  Regardless if you can understand what they are thinking or feeling, try anyway.

I recently participated as a juror in a criminal trial.  Though I knew it would be a personal inconvenience, I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do.  It was my obligation as a citizen, to do my part in ensuring justice was served.  Some would argue if it truly was, but I digress.  So, what’s the point of this blog post?

About a month ago, I informed the necessary (corporate) parties who pay me that I had been selected to be part of a jury pool.  Upon sending them the necessary information, I was told I would be paid for a full 8 hour day, minus $20. (The amount Frederick County pays a juror for one day of service).  Considering the cost to short my paycheck was probably more than $20, I wasn’t going to argue.  If that’s what they wanted to do, it was a wash for me, with the exception of the work I had to delay for my customer.

Upon submitting my hours on the second day, I received a (billing) submission error.  Because it was an ambiguous error message, I send an email to accounting.  I said, upon completing my second day of jury duty and billing my time, I received the error.  Within a few minutes, I received a very short email response. It informed me I would only be paid for 1 day of jury duty, that “it’s in the handbook” and I would have to bill my time to my Paid Time Off (PTO).  I was surprised I didn’t get a “I’m sorry if there was a misunderstanding…” or “I regret to bring this to your attention…” email.  Seconds later I got another email.  It was one line.  “You can also take Leave Without Pay”.

Let’s take a moment to reflect.

Both of these emails came from the Human Resources department, not from my direct chain of command.  I did get a telephone call from my Director within a few minutes.  He apologized if I had misunderstood the corporate policy to only pay employees for one day of jury duty but added he would work with me if I had already made plans that would result in a PTO deficit.  I want to commend him on having empathy.  He showed true leadership in picking up the telephone and calling me.  He showed true leadership in listening to me vent for several minutes.  It didn’t change anything but he certainly scored a few points in my book.

We’re all human beings.  We all like to be treated like human beings.
When in doubt, pick up the phone or go talk to someone directly.
Most importantly, don’t ever send a one line email that basically says “RTFM”

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4 Replies to “Lacking Empathy”

  1. Excellent comment. As I read your account of the HR emails I was thinking “Yep typical” and i’m glad that the real manager came to the rescue.

    What’s this say about HR departments, and more generally all back office “hidden” bureaucrat (Including IT and project teams?) Yep, WE need to be more empathetic also.

    1. Craig, I think you nailed it. If you are hired to deal with human resources, a prerequisite should be treat those resources like humans. I certainly have something to say about the “hidden” bureaucrat, in an article I’m writing of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy and project management.

  2. Derek,
    We all have a simialr story. Mine goes like this. I’m a Program Manager, actually the VP of Program Management at a very large (top 10) construction company, with a very large (multi-billion) contract for a large (1/2 trillion) government agency. Our firm (it’s a partnership between two similar firms for the purpose of the multi-billion contract), is listed as one of those “top 10 firms to work for on the planet.”
    A member of my staff has a husband who was stationed in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He was able to get a ride home to the Washington DC area. The wife, one of my project managers, had a small child, and could find baby sitting and planned to visit her husband at the DC airport, since the US Army would not pay for his flight further west. My staff member had run her vacation account down to zero on previous visits to see her husband on his short visits from a war zone.
    I got to HR and say “hey I want Betty to go negative on her PTO, to visit Bob, and she’ll make it up in the coming months.” Oh no, can’t do that the HR handbook says so.
    OK, I see, yea it says that. Well, here’s plan B (be the Program Manager), let’s have the rest of my staff (30 or so) all chip in a few hours from our PTO accounts (I never take PTO and overrun my time every eyar) and transfer those unused hours to Betty.
    “What !, you can’t do that?” “really, isn’t it a simple matter of a database command.?” “We can cashout at the end of the year (in those days), can’t you just take my excess hours and move them to Betty instead of giving me cash over my allocated PTO?” Nope you can’t and besides since you’re suggesting that I’m no labeled a “trouble maker” but corporate HR. Corporate BTW didn’t have a sense of humor and didn’t wear boots and a hard hat every day, like we did on the site.
    So the “top 10 firm to work for on the planet,” turned out to be a “not much fun place to work for,” when it came down the actually helping the people who worked for it with real world problems, like visiting your husband who is home for 3 days from war zone.
    Yep everyone has a story…

    1. Glen,
      Your response and emails I’ve received from others about this subject are identifying a tend. HR doesn’t seem to solve problems. They seem to only adhere to or enforce policy. As the Program Manager, you looked for solutions to the problem. You even had a solid plan B. Both sounded like reasonable requests. It’s not like Betty wanted to fly to New York for an extended weekend to take in a show and do a little shopping. She wanted to see her husband!
      I don’t understand the motivation nor the benefit of HR being inflexible in a situation like this. All they do is frustrate people when they should be supporting them. I always thought HR was created to support the people that are making money for the company. Why wouldn’t they be receptive to ideas that will keep them happy?

      Thank you for an awesome comment,

      Thank you for your comment.

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