Why HR should build a culture of empathy

‘How do you differentiate yourself as a human first then as a HR leader?’

Why HR should build a culture of empathy

Every job has a work hazard. HR’s is the emotional distress that comes with the expectation to always be the ‘people person’ in the organization.

And when you’re in the service sector such as hospitality, the nature of the job – managing frontline roles running round the clock – can really get to you.

HRD spoke with Zacharias Rajagopal, director of human resources at Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel, to find out how he remains engaged and empathetic in such a difficult role.

Rajagopal has had diverse HR experience through his career. He’s held roles in Fortune 500 companies, multinationals, leading banks, and most recently, hospitality organisations.

He shared with us that the diversity has given him “great understanding” across the board and allowed him to better internalise the complexity of each employee issue, no matter how big or small, and become a better HR leader.

What has remained the same through his career is this: he finds that most employees seek out HR because they need a listening ear or some form of help.

“When it comes to the hospitality industry, it runs 24/7. But employees are human – they have their own problems,” he said. “Let’s say you are the front-office employee and you just broke up with your [partner] and you are coming for your shift. You are expected to smile and be friendly with guests.

“[Sometimes as HR] you even have people coming to you because of a break up…on the verge of divorce…they have financial issues…they don’t turn up for work because of [domestic abuse], they come to HR for advice.

“You don’t want to [immediately] punish a person, so how do you differentiate yourself as a human first then as a HR leader?”

Human first; leader, second
Threading the fine line between professional and personal is undeniably difficult, especially when misconduct is involved. How does Rajagopal handle it?

“As an employee, you are bound by a relationship,” he said. “[As HR] I’m the advocate of the company. What binds us is the contract employees agree to.

“There will come a time when someone exhausts [the relationship] and you need to do the right thing. Whether you need to investigate a case of misconduct, the extent of the misconduct…then you know how far the punishment should go.”

Whether the situation requires a reminder, caution, a warning or a dismissal, Rajagopal said that’s where HR must consider the “binding relationship”.

“As a human, you talk to the person and advise him/her,” he said. “[You’ll find] nobody is so imperfect. Nobody is as bad as they seem to be. As humans, all of us tend to make mistakes at some point. You need to tell them what their mistakes are and how to overcome them.”

He clarified that even if the employee chooses to resign instead of staying and facing a disciplinary action, HR still has the responsibility to “help them” by pointing out the misconduct so that they can avoid it in their next job.

“That’s the part where you become human,” he said.

Self-care and support
Besides building a strong, understanding relationship with employees, HR has a vital role In building the right culture at work.

At Renaissance KL, they have an initiative called Take Care that aims to spread the culture of support and empathy. Take Care branches out into sub-sections on how to “Take Care – Me”, “Take Care – We” and “Take Care – Us”.

“Take Care – Me” is primarily about self-care. Rajagopal said it’s the organisation’s way of teaching employees to “know their space”. Not just about keeping your own physical health, it’s also about maintaining your financial health for instance. Employees are given the chance to learn basics such as how to save.

“Take Care – We” focuses on teamwork and how to successfully collaborate. Matter-of-factly, he said that having support from your team members is crucial to get through your day-to-day.

“Assuming I want to take a long break and my team member just wants to do routine work,” he said. “Somebody has to take on my work when I’m away. [My team member] needs to know my portfolio [to help cover for me].”

Lastly, the Take Care initiative also looks at how the organisation can give back to society. It helps everyone to understand that “it’s not just about us”. Renaissance has done CSR activities helping the less fortunate over seasonal periods like Christmas and the Lunar New Year.

How to avoid getting ‘too involved’
Determining the line for employees is one thing but doing it for yourself is a whole other ball game. How can HR avoid getting too affected by the emotional stress of it all?

Rajagopal shared that as it’s inevitable in his line, it’s crucial to have a strong and understanding support network. He shared his personal policy around his relationship at home.

“How I do it is I always believe in the pareto rule, of the 20 that makes the 80,” he said. “So I know what’s important to my family – if I don’t [meet those needs], I will make up the time.”

For instance, recently he’s had some late hours in the office. He knows his wife likes to take road trips on his motorcycle. To make up for the extra hours away from home, he made it a point to plan a scenic cross-country day trip and to catch up over meals.

He also made the conscious effort not to do any work that day, even though he sneaked in some peeps at his phone to check if there were any urgent emails to attend to.

Whether it’s at work or at home, Rajagopal believes everything rests heavily on your ability to build and maintain relationships.

“You have to take the role that you do like a relationship,” he said. “A relationship is sustainable…If you have challenges, don’t raise the white flag and just say ‘check mate’ and be ‘done’ with it. You have to sustain through challenges.”


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