Radical Empathy: A New Relationship for HR and Recruiting


This three-part series looks at what’s next for human resources and talent acquisition. Part one makes a case for 2021 as HR’s moment of radical praxis, part two for rebuilding the relationship with TA, and part three for recentering what functions as the heart of organizations. 

Radical Empathy: A New Relationship for HR and Recruiting

The last 12 months have delivered countless clichés. Now more than ever. The new normal. These unprecedented times. We also heard a lot of “We’ll get through this together,” which seems to indicate a level of solidarity that didn’t exist pre-pandemic, so why would it now? The world is full of silos, and HR is no different, often caught in a tug of war with related functions, but mainly TA.

Much like the two-party system, HR and TA’s rift is growing increasingly contentious, despite everyone ultimately wanting what’s best for the organization. HR wants to own TA, likely because it factors into their performance, while TA is on a Rodney Dangerfield-level quest for some respect for their expertise.

The ownership mentality pits one side against the other, allowing the misery and judgment to continue. That said, if 2021 is HR’s moment of radical praxis, it needs to do more than self-reflect.

It needs to assess its collateral damage and find a way to repair relationships. TA first. You need each other more than you realize – or are willing to admit.

Before we hug it out, let’s look at what happened and how we fix it.

The Power Struggle

For today’s purpose, we’re going to talk about radical empathy. The concept, which has a few definitions, encourages people to consider another’s point of view. The key is to consider it even when (maybe especially when) we disagree in order to connect more deeply with the other side. “Side” is an important word here because there are almost always two sides to every story (and relationship).

Some say there are three: yours, mine, and the truth. But what about yours, mine, and ours? Are we on opposing teams – or the same one?  

Regardless, the trouble begins when people start to struggle, something the pandemic only exacerbated. When we start to struggle, we tend to see ourselves as alone, without resources, direction – or help. When we feel alone, we get scared and look for a way to control the situation.

Wanting control leads to power … and you probably see where this is going.

Researcher Brené Brown sees power as the real issue, noting that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said power is “the ability to achieve purpose and effect change.” That right there could be the mission statement of both HR and TA professionals the world over.

And even though these functions aren’t known for their power within organizations, Brown goes onto say, “What makes power dangerous is how it’s used. Power over is driven by fear. Daring and transformative leaders share power with, empower people to, and inspire people to develop power within.”

Now, some will take umbrage with her use of the word leadership, and to that, we say, don’t. It doesn’t matter if you are an HR Business Partner or Talent Acquisition Associate. Leadership isn’t what’s wrong here – you are all leaders in your own right. It’s power – and power is in direct conflict with radical empathy. 

A New Position

To improve the connection between HR and TA, you need to stop looking for power over the other. That’s not going to improve outcomes. Instead, you need to think about how you’re evaluating your team, as well, a team. How are you working together to engage talent? Who is talking to who?

HR needs to stop looking down on recruiters as less-than, and recruiters need to realize that HR isn’t the enemy. One does not have power over the other.

Having more experience doesn’t make you more empowered. Ageism works both ways (and isn’t helping anyone!). Assuming you need to power over someone more experienced than you because you’re more innovative, or assuming you need to power over someone less experienced because they lack expertise is only making things worse. No respect!

For these barriers to come down, you can’t be too busy (or powerful) to talk to each other. In the world of Zoom, are you making time?

Remember open door policies? Have the doors slammed shut? Think about creating one specifically for HR and TA. Make it an open-heart policy, one that enables you to get back on the same team and become true partners.

That could mean hosting office hours so recruiters can check in with HR and vice versa. Don’t sit – or struggle – in silence. HR and TA are both based on relationships. Yours can be mutually beneficial if you remove fear, power, and shame from the equation. Is it going to take work? Absolutely.

But as Brown says, “Getting it right is more important than being right.”

Likewise, getting to a place of radical empathy will be a build process. There will be growing pains along the way. Building is rarely seamless or easy. Still, someone needs to take the first step. Someone needs to open the door.

We need to put joy back into the work we do. It’s supposed to be fun to hire. It’s supposed to be rewarding to partner with the people around us. If we move away from power and ego and allow trust and collaboration back into the HR-TA relationship, we can center ourselves around connection and humanity, as Brown urges, and use empathy to drive our agendas, cultures, and values.

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