Lucy Kellaway: I don’t want my employers to feel my pain

Workers should be treated with respect and dignity but spare us the Starbucks empathy

Just over a week ago, in that innocent age when the prospect of a reality TV host moving into the White House was terrifying yet remote, Howard Schultz sat down to write a note to the 100,000 or so Americans who serve coffee in his shops. There was a leadership void in the US, the Starbucks chief noted – a void which he promptly attempted to fill by stepping into it himself.

“We’ve lost faith in what we all know has always been true, the promise of America.

“But you are the true promise of America. My faith in you has me more optimistic than ever. Today, I’m not talking about our business or the Starbucks brand. I’m talking about you as a person.”

There is much to admire in this simple, stirring language, yet otherwise it left me puzzled. Why does he have more faith than ever in his employees as people? What have they done to deserve it? He doesn’t say.

Instead, he goes on: “In the face of this epic, unseemly election . . . and the lack of truth and void of leadership, we can still make a difference in the lives of the people we touch and influence every day. Kindness, compassion, empathy, and yes love is what we need.”

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner but I read this and felt mildly outraged. Mr Schultz is quite right that if everyone were always kind to each other the world would be a better place.

But a) that’s not going to happen; b) it’s certainly not going to happen because the head of a coffee company says so, and c) I’m not sure what gives him the platform to talk like this.

Mr Schultz was not elected. He has a duty to behave decently to his staff and his customers. He has no duty, indeed no business, to be looking after their spiritual lives or telling them how to behave when they go home.


The message goes on: “Start today by recognising the power we have to demonstrate understanding, and to strip away the differences that divide us.”

I agree that it would be lovely if we could strip away all differences. But one difference that divides Mr Schultz from the people making his skinny cinnamon lattes is that his net worth is $2.9 billion while some of them get about $10 an hour. That’s quite a difference. And the free coffee, the tips and other benefits Starbucks staff get don’t really reduce it that much.

He winds up: “On this Sunday, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, know that I send you my love and respect.”

It isn’t clear to me how he can send his love to about 100,000 people he has mostly never met and doesn’t even know the names of. This is one of the differences between the deity and mortals: God can love everyone, but for a human, loving someone usually means getting to know them first.

And yet this idea of empathy in corporate life is gaining a foothold. Later this week the Empathy Global Index is published, ranking companies based on their behaviour on social networks and assorted opinion polls.

Jobs axed

There is a lot about this that doesn't quite stack up. Last year Microsoft came top, but then proceeded to axe several thousand jobs – which doesn't strike me as all that empathetic.

Equally, I am doubtful whether you can measure empathy in a single, aggregated number. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share other people’s feelings – and so social networking sites are not the obvious place to go in search of it.

More fundamentally, empathy is not necessarily good for business – or for us as individuals. There was a great piece in the Harvard Business Review recently pointing out that empathy is dangerous if there is too much of it.

For a start, it is exhausting. Jobs that require a lot of empathy – like working in a hospice – leave us shattered and on the verge of breakdown.

Second, it is a zero-sum game. If you spend all day being empathetic at work, you have none left when you go home. And finally, too much empathy can lead to bad decisions.

I don’t want my employers to feel my pain. They don’t need to love me. They just need to be able to behave decently towards me. Respect and dignity go a long way, and in extremis if, say, a member of my family were to fall ill, I would much rather my bosses skipped empathy and went for sympathy – and gave as much time off as was required.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016