A beautiful day in your neighborhood? 5 lessons for HR from Mr. Rogers

Stop talking and listen, a lesson for HR from Mr. Rogers.

I think I was around 4 or 5 when it happened: when I grew out of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Before that time, it was appointment television before appointment television was a thing. I never missed an episode. I sat on my living room floor, legs bent and crossed, rapt, marveling at the ease with which Mr. Rogers transitioned from the sport coat and oxfords to the signature cardigan and sneakers and at the forthright and genuine nature of his conversations with Daniel Tiger, Lady Aberlin or King Friday. His voice comforted and his lessons endured.

Fast forward 43 years or so …

This time, instead of my living room floor, it’s legs fully extended on a reclining chair in a multiplex movie theater with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in HD sound and picture and Tom Hanks delivering a stunningly accurate and entire-body-warming portrayal of Fred Rogers. It’s as if time somehow reversed itself. I sit in awe of Mr. Rogers’ unwavering kindness. Of his unabashed refusal to cast judgment. Of his absolute and complete willingness to accept that even the darkest of souls possess light that simply has not yet, but undeniably will, reach the surface.

And then it occurs to me, as clear as the sky above the Neighborhood of Make Believe: Mr. Rogers’ lessons have direct and impactful application to the Neighborhood of Human Resources.

Show Empathy

Has there ever been a public figure who was more genuinely empathetic than Fred Rogers? His unparalleled care for others rendered him supremely effective at connecting with others, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other class. From the perspective of HR, is there a skill more critical than your ability to connect with and to engender trust in those whom you serve?

Folks, we have to do a better job at expressing to our employees that we appreciate their struggles. That we understand the world, both inside and outside of work, can be crazed, complicated and confusing. That we are, at all times, available to support them and to assist with their needs. But these cannot simply be expressions of caring. There must be ongoing behavior and demonstrable acts, engaged in with consistency and with the employees’ best interests at heart.

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Stop Talking and Listen

Just open your ears and, simultaneously, close your mouth. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet …

At this, Mr. Rogers was without peer. His ability to allow someone to speak and to not interject his thoughts before the speaker completed his/her/their thought made him such a phenomenally effective communicator. Imagine if we too could master this skill. If we could simply listen without speaking. And, I know what you’re thinking: “I already do this.” But, really think about it. Do you actually?

The employees who come to share thoughts and experiences—do you truly allow them an unfettered and unfiltered opportunity to express themselves? Or, like so many of us, do you, almost always borne of the best of intentions, interrupt the employee and start sharing similar experiences you have had? Employees need our support and our advice and how can we really do that if we are listening not to the employee’s problem or situation, but instead to our own story? While certainly our past experiences can provide context and contribute to our expertise, the employee is with you in this instance to be heard, not to be the hearer.

So let’s agree right now: The next time an employee seeks your help or solicits your opinion, we will channel our inner Mr. Rogers and listen first (and more) and speak later (far less and only when necessary).

Don’t Shy Away from the Tough Conversation

One of Mr. Rogers’ greatest gifts was his willingness to have the tough conversation. He never shied away from even the most challenging topics. Whether a child needed to discuss abuse or an adult was compelled to examine mortality, Mr. Rogers engaged to his fullest. And it was that willingness that made him so important to the children and adults who sought his counsel.

Think about the conversations our constituents come to discuss with us. At times, they are neither comfortable nor easy. If they were, the employee would not need us. A co-worker suffering from substance abuse and wondering what benefits may be available. A family member who has been stricken with cancer and the need for leave. The topics often are, literally, life and death. We must, absolutely must, make the employee feel comfortable and safe, and the only way we can do that is by taking in every word and addressing every concern. Regardless of how distasteful the topic or uncomfortable it makes us feel, we are the employee’s outlet and must remain completely available and accessible to digest and address the employee’s concerns.

Create and Maintain a Positive Working Environment

One of the strikingly clear observations in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was how positive the working environment is inside of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood (the actual workplace). The employees take their cue from their leader, Fred, and constantly demonstrate a wildly productive and professional approach to the work and a fiercely loyal attitude towards each other.

As HR professionals, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that employees feel safe and that we create and maintain a working environment that is as positive as possible, as much of the time as possible, for as many as possible. Utopia does not exist and perfection is a myth. We need constantly to evaluate what is working and what is not working inside our organization. And we must do so with a critical eye and in conjunction with input from others, recognizing that our perception may, at times, be different than that of the masses. The employees in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood brought with them different experiences and frames of references and, accordingly, varying challenges. And yet, the collaborative, positive and just plain happy attitudes that pervaded the workplace were palpable. But—and yes, it’s just a movie—there simply is no way that kind of experience occurs without hard work, self-critical analysis and, when necessary, meaningful change.

If It’s Mentionable, It’s Manageable

Part of what made Mr. Rogers so incredibly effective as a problem-solver was his openness to taking on even the most complicated issues. At times, the situations he addressed seemed utterly impossible and devoid of any solution or resolution. But, in the face of these real-life horrors, he remained steadfast to his mantra:

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.

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As HR professionals, we are confronted constantly with situations that seem to defy explanation and present tremendous challenges because they are so personal. As humans, often we tend to shy away from them because they are so difficult. These are the very situations that we must handle with the most zeal, enthusiasm and vigor. An employee bore his/her/their soul to us and we must respond, no matter how difficult the scenario or how uncomfortable it may make us feel. Whether that individual brings forward a sensitive hostile work environment claim involving a high level executive, raises the need for a protection from abuse order because of a spouse’s conduct or requests time off from work to care for a gravely ill family member, the employee is counting on us as HR for intervention and, hopefully, resolution. We must act—thoughtfully, deliberately and empathetically. It may not be easy, but it must be done. Listen to Mr. Rogers: It was mentionable and, therefore, it is manageable.

Michael S. Cohen
Michael S. Cohen, a partner at Duane Morris LLP, concentrates his practice in the areas of employment law and counseling.