Josh Bersin: Kindness—What’s missing in a great employee experience

By: | February 25, 2020 • 4 min read
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He will speak at the 2020 Virtual HR Technology Conference scheduled for Oct. 27-30. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

In 2014, I wrote a speech titled “Simply Irresistible” that discussed the need to rethink employee engagement. Out of that speech came a research model exploring how meaningful work, sound management, an inclusive environment, career growth and leadership were all part of creating an irresistible work experience.

Since then, there has been a flood of new studies on employee experience, all of which have common takeaways: People want meaningful jobs, fair pay, transparency, growth and, most of all, kindness.

New Research on Loneliness

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about kindness in the workplace. At last year’s CHRO Summit at UC Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center presented its research on happiness and wellbeing. The Berkeley faculty has found that compassion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, mindfulness, social connection and awe are the most important things in our lives.

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For me, this research was a wake-up call. I realized that, in the hundreds of meetings I’d conducted over two decades, I had never seen these words in company mission statements, competency models or leadership values.

Cigna recently published results from its U.S. Loneliness Index, which explores the connection between physical health and emotional wellbeing. The survey results are frightening: Fifty-two percent of Americans say they feel alone most or all of the time, an increase of 6% over the last year. And 38% say they “do not have close relationships with other people.” The essence of the book Bowling Alone, published almost 20 years ago, has come true: We are living in a world where social media, the internet, emails and TV dominate our time—leaving many of us unable to create meaningful relationships in our lives.


And, according to Cigna research, young people are the loneliest of all, perhaps exacerbated by job hopping. The Cigna research points out that the more frequently we change jobs, the more likely we are to be lonely. It takes time to build relationships at work, and when we leave positions, these personal relationships often evaporate.

Anxiety and Stress

At work, anxiety and stress are at all-time highs. I talk with HR leaders about this almost every day, and most are bending over backward to understand, redesign and improve the employee experience as a result.

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In fact, IBM’s most recent study of skills gaps shows that stress management, time management and the ability to deal with uncertainty are the most in-demand skills. These power skills, as I call them, are not only complex in nature, they also center around being kind to others and ourselves.

In the Public Sphere, Kindness Seems Lacking

There is also a sense of growing despair around us. Despite the growth in GDP and the stock market, this economic cycle has been unkind to many. As David Leonhardt recently wrote in the New York Times, more than half of U.S. workers have not seen wage growth for decades. In my city of Oakland, homelessness is a terrible problem. My family and I spent time bringing food to homeless people this past holiday season, and I saw first-hand their cruel plight. Many had lost their jobs or had fallen ill and couldn’t work. An expression of kindness was an acknowledgement of their humanity.

The Role of HR

We, as HR leaders and professionals, can help bring kindness into our companies. While the dimensions of the simply irresistible model are important, the human element is most important of all. Kindness means truly caring about others, and acting and behaving in a kind and forgiving way. I urge you to consider a few things:

  • Is your management rewarded for listening, caring and understanding people on the team?
  • Does your company’s culture allow people to make mistakes and then learn and grow from them?
  • When your business slows, do you let people go or do you find a way to help them stay?
  • Are your products and services kind to your customers, their families and the environment?
  • Do people come to work feeling they can be themselves and they will be accepted for who they are?

These are not business or HR strategies, they’re sound principles for life. As you and your teams focus on employee retention, engagement and productivity, make sure you bring the concepts of kindness, forgiveness and generosity to work.