The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings of another — essentially, it’s part of what makes us human, and the tech industry has struggled to master it.
The technology sector has faced persistent criticism for a lack of empathy, and not only in programs or products it creates. From claims of discrimination against women, older workers, and minorities, to fears about data privacy and using social media for nefarious purposes, the tech industry is grappling with a “tech-lash” largely in part because of the perception that it lacks empathy with the real people who use technology.
But what do employees in the tech industry have to say about it? We’ve surveyed tech employees for three years in our State of Workplace Empathy Study, and in 2017 and 2018, between 50% and 60% said their industry was more empathetic than other sectors. But, in our latest 2019 results, 98% of tech employees said their industry was more or much more empathetic than others — an eye-popping 45-point increase in one year.
At the same time, however, 96% of tech employees in 2019 say it’s hard for their coworkers to demonstrate empathy at work. It’s clear there’s a disconnect — the industry is more empathetic than others, yet the people working in the industry struggle to show empathy? Where is this disconnect coming from?
It starts with awareness
The tech sector’s issues with diversity and inclusion (D&I) are well-publicized at this point. Those in the industry know it as well: for example, in a recent survey 62% of women in tech said they’ve had their ideas ignored in meetings until a man repeats them, and 40% of LGBTQ-identified people believe sexual orientation discrimination exists in tech. In an economy where we have four generations actively working side by side, tech employees report biases against older generations — 76% of respondents said ageism is present in the tech industry.
This negative publicity has gotten the attention of those working in the tech industry, particularly in hiring and HR. As a result they’re rolling out initiatives at their companies, such as Slack’s revamped interview process to improve D&I. This is likely what is driving the self-reporting in our 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study: as tech employees hear of D&I programs and initiatives, they believe their industry is authentically demonstrating empathy. With it top of mind, employees are inclined to respond that the industry as a whole is improving on empathy.
The importance of personal connections
And yet, 96% say it’s hard for their coworkers to show empathy. This suggests that while tech employees perceive the discussions around diversity issues as something that increases empathy in the industry at large, they’re not actually experiencing changes in their day-to-day interactions. It could be because of the slow pace of improvement on D&I. “Diversity fatigue” has been noted in the industry, as attempts to improve recruiting and representation at all levels of tech companies have stalled, despite the persistent coverage of the problem.
It could also be a lack of interpersonal communications. The tech sector is known for remote working arrangements, and we’re seeing remote workers report increasing feelings of loneliness. Our 2019 study shows yet again that face-to-face communications are seen as most empathetic: 95% say this form of communication shows empathy. But, in an industry where technology obviously takes center stage, there could be a lack of the type of personal connections that are vital for employees to show empathy with one another.
Solving the conundrum
Leaders and HR professionals in the tech industry can help increase the perception of empathy among employees by supporting actionable steps:
- Continue to improve on D&I
- Emphasize face-to-face communication
- Use technology to bring people together
These initiatives can’t be one-and-done; they must be consistent efforts to weave empathy into the fabric of tech’s culture. The tech sector may be facing an empathy conundrum but there is room for growth, which presents a unique opportunity for leaders to make a positive difference.
For an industry that relies on being at the forefront of change, the ability to evolve and improve is hardwired in those who are willing to try.