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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

Showing Compassion with Accountability

I've read a lot of things in the last few days encouraging HR professionals and business executives to have compassion while dealing with employees. 100% - I agree. What is compassion, though? And what does it look like when leaders lead with compassion? The dictionary defines it as "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." Sometimes, leaders will mistake avoiding difficult conversations for compassion, because they have such a strong desire to not cause more pain and suffering. That is understandable, but avoidance is not compassionate. It only exacerbates the problem and makes the suffering contagious among your employees.

A poor-performing employee, let's call her Judy, is going through a divorce. Judy's supervisor avoids having a performance conversation because they have that "strong desire to alleviate the [Judy's] suffering." But Judy's co-workers have to work longer hours because Judy is not doing her job. They may be going through their own hardships, but aren't as verbal about them. Are they entitled to your compassion, too? They are! And you can handle the entire situation with compassion for all of your employees.

Let's consider what could happen if the supervisor went ahead with that performance conversation in a compassionate manner: "Judy, thank you so much for meeting with me today. I need to talk to you about the two reports that didn't get completed on time. Can you tell me what happened?"

Let the employee talk. LISTEN. When Judy brings up her difficulties in her personal life, show empathy and compassion: "That is awful and I'm so sorry you are having to go through this. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Let the employee talk again. LISTEN.

Turn the conversation back to the performance issue: "Judy, I know things are hard for you right now - I wondered if there's anything I can do to help you complete your reports on time. It's a really essential part of your job because we use that information to calculate the monthly budget."

Close out the meeting with some reassurance: "Judy, we're here if you need anything. We know you have a lot going on, and we are here to help you in whatever way we can." Provide Judy with your employee assistance program information. Let her know that you are available if she needs anything.

Follow up with a check in every day, and show appreciation for progress: "How's it going today, Judy? Do you need anything? I saw that you completed that report. Awesome! Thank you so much for your hard work."

Accountability does not have to happen without compassion. It's compassionate to alleviate an employee's suffering by giving them a heads up that they are not performing at an acceptable level and giving them a chance to improve. It's compassionate to alleviate an employee's suffering by ensuring that everyone is contributing at the appropriate level. It's compassionate to listen to your employees, hear what they have to say, and provide them with the support they need.

It's not compassionate to ignore performance issues until co-workers get resentful and take it out on the poor performer, making everyone's work miserable. Avoidance is not compassion. But with some purposeful, planned conversations, accountability can be the most compassionate thing a leader can carry out.

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