Friday, January 4, 2013

Lack of Empathy at Work

Many years ago, I worked at a small office in New York. I was pretty happy there doing entry level work, my boss liked me and the only real downside to the job was the long commute.

I worked primarily with men, and there was one guy who everyone had a real issue with. The guy in question looked different than most of the other guys in our section, he was slight, he was generally unkempt in his appearance, and he slouched constantly. Let's call him Don. When I arrived on my first day, Don came to me and asked me to lunch in the office cafeteria.

At the time I considered it a friendly gesture from one employee to another, welcoming me to the group. When he continued to ask me to join him for lunch every day I became suspicious. Nobody else in the office group was going to the cafeteria, and we were getting looks. I refused him one day on a made-up excuse.

It was after Don left that others in my group shared with me their feelings about him. That he was odd, that he was obsessive about his things, and that he played tricks on them and that they enjoyed playing cruel but generally harmless tricks back (like stealing his personal items and returning them days or weeks later). They didn't tell me this before, they said, because he was 'all over me', and because they thought I might be interested in dating him. They wanted to be 'sure', they said.

All this left me feeling rather conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to fit in. This was a new job (in a new career, actually) and these were the people I was supposed to be trying hard to impress. I didn't want to cause trouble within the group. On the other hand, I had spent a little time with Don and had found him funny and friendly. I wasn't interested in dating him (not sure why every time guys and girls get together THAT is the automatic assumption) but I wasn't going to be mean to him either.

The end of the story is that I chose to never have lunch with him again. I was friendly to him and we continued to have a good working relationship, although I think he never considered me a friend after I dropped him like a hot rock. I also chose not to become friends with the other guys in the office - after learning how they treated him, I really didn't want to be a part of that either.

I empathized with everyone and as a result became friends with none. I don't really think that I handled the situation well - maybe if I was a better person I could have pushed for the friendship with Don and told the rest of the guys to go jump in a lake.

Have you had issues with your co-workers, either now or in the past, that you feel you didn't handle well? Would more empathy have helped?


Just putting a little more thought into the above story. I said that I had empathy for both parties. I don't think that was true. I think I had sympathy for both parties. I didn't really feel what the other co-workers were feeling, so I didn't have empathy for them. I didn't really feel what Don was feeling, or I wouldn't have chosen to hurt him. Instead I chose to feel only my own feelings in the situation - confusion, not wanting to make trouble in a new office, and eventually, hurting Don.

I do remember feeling bad about cutting out Don. So maybe I had a little empathy for him.

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