Embrace care as a core workplace value

Approached smartly, care can serve as a business benefit for your company.

The fact that February, being Valentine’s month, is widely associated with love could be regarded as not especially relevant for workplaces – unless love is translated into care as a workplace value. But, although many organisations loudly proclaim how much they value their people as their most important asset, it does not often extend to the mention of care. Values such as honesty or integrity, respect, responsibility, accountability and fairness are widely held, but care is often not appreciated or adopted as a core value within organisations.

Care in non-profit organisations

The impact of care is well illustrated within NGOs and volunteer and not-for-profit organisations to the extent that, in some cases, care is their raison d’être.

An organisation such as Doctors without Borders is a volunteer organisation that provides assistance to populations in distress, to victims of natural or man-made disasters and to victims of armed conflict irrespective of race, religion, creed or political convictions. Recently they have also been in the news for their work to manage the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Similarly, Oxfam International defines its purpose as helping to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty.

Care is not included in either of these organisation’s mission statements or purpose, but their commitment to making a difference clearly reflects deep care for the plight of others.

Care in business

In the corporate world, care for others often manifests itself as corporate social responsibility or corporate social investment. While this may sometimes be driven by compliance requirements (such as for a BEE rating), it can and should serve as a valuable facet of the company, for example, to build sound relationships with the local community or to improve employee engagement via employee volunteer programmes.

Care is also an important facet of leadership in the workplace. Posing the following question illustrates this point: who was the best boss you ever had and, crucially, why was that person your best boss? While many reasons may be shared, most of them tend to fall into two categories: care and growth or development (Schuitema, 1998:24–25). The best boss was understanding, caring or supportive in a particular time of need. Or the best boss was committed to helping you grow and develop. These roles – care and growth – represent two crucial aspects of leadership from a motivational and a productivity point of view and are arguably as close as one can get to the “magic formula” that is most likely to get the best out of followers.

But can care really be implemented in the organisation? Would a policy of care be of value or deliver value?

An ostensible area of conflict stems from the fact that the circumstance that warrants care or compassion is often not work related: a sick child, a partner with AIDS, or a person going through a divorce. If the company subscribes to a “work is work and home is home” view, these issues would fall outside its boundaries – although the impact would still affect the employee at work. But if the company recognises that the impact of work and home co-exist in employees, helping them – as a supportive leader or by providing access to suitable counselling – becomes mutually beneficial.

Another apparent obstacle to the inclusion of care centres on the assumption that accommodating employees’ personal problems would erode productivity and have a negative impact on results. But care does not and should not imply that the employees’ responsibilities and deadlines disappear. Nor should it negate necessary discipline. Incorporating care into the company’s values (as for other values) requires that employees understand what it does and does not entail, and what it means in terms of their behaviour and their work. Care should be a two-way exercise that addresses both parties’ needs.

An instance when care matters and when it would be of greater value is when the company faces retrenchments or downsizing. This is a tough experience for all affected employees. How the process is managed and how employees are treated is crucial. Displaying care would involve, for example, that:

- all the termination meetings are attended by a senior executive such as the HR Director. Avoiding the difficulty and stress of being part of the process by delegating it to a more junior HR employee sends a very uncaring message;
- employees’ feelings are acknowledged and support in the form of counselling is made available; and
- assistance is provided to increase the employees’ employability, for example, by including training opportunities or skills upliftment in the termination package.

All of these care-based actions can help employees to cope better and could even reduce the likelihood of legal challenges or CCMA action. It also sends a positive message to those employees remaining in the company’s employ about the extent of the company’s care.

Therefore, instead of viewing care as a “soft” approach that allows employees to take advantage of the organisation, it should rather be seen as an “investment” approach, stemming from the recognition that the company’s employees represent its intellectual investors.

By Cynthia Schoeman
Published in HR Future, February 2015