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Raf Uzar


Head of Communication & Development

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What can HR learn from the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine?

Residing in Poland, Raf Uzar shares how people are coming together to support Ukrainian refugees. What lessons can we take from this humanitarian response?

As I write this piece, in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the instigation of Vladimir Putin, my emotions are running wild. I have experienced shock, outrage, fear, and confusion in equal measure, but I have also been touched by incredible acts of bravery and empathy, alongside a spectacular sense of pride at the goodness of the human heart.

I’ve been moved to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard), and share some of my thoughts about the lessons we can learn from this barbaric war. In these darkest of hours, the light of human solidarity has already cocooned millions of people fleeing Ukraine.

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

In the space of thirteen days, people in Poland have taken in around 1,100,000 (1.1 million) refugees. Citizens have been driving to the Polish-Ukrainian border to pick up fleeing families (chiefly women and children) and take them back into their own homes. They have given them food, shelter, clothes, medical assistance, and help in organising schooling for their children. This has happened with little to no institutional help.

In the face of this wave of civic solidarity of historic proportions, the Polish government has implemented legislation lifting visa requirements for those fleeing Ukraine. Refugees will be given a modest financial package, medical benefits, schooling for children, the possibility of obtaining a Polish national identity number, and setting up a business in Poland.

People across the continent have been swept along by a flood of empathy, compassion, and solidarity. I have never ever seen anything like this before and I hope the worlds of human resources, organisational development, and learning and development can appreciate what is unfolding before our eyes so that we can strive to nurture and support these feelings for the benefit of our workplaces and lives.

Three feelings – three forces – should be discussed, applauded, and mirrored at every opportunity.

The first force: empathy 

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” (Daniel H. Pink)

We have all come to appreciate the key role that emotional intelligence (EI) plays in the modern world and the central role that empathy holds in EI. But can we learn empathy? Can empathy be taught to people in the workforce? Can it be trained into us?

I would argue that HR, OD, and L&D should describe and applaud empathy whenever it occurs in the workplace. Research has been conducted on whether empathy can be taught and some studies demonstrate that training empathy involves four elements:

  1. Showing the benefits of empathic behaviour
  2. Providing models of empathic behaviour
  3. Practising showing empathy
  4. Giving constructive feedback on attempts to show empathy

While many believe that empathy might not necessarily be a skill that can be taught, Edith Stein suggests it can be ‘facilitated’. At the very least, therefore, our role should be facilitatory.

The second force: compassion

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” (Albert Einstein)

If empathy is an awareness and understanding of the feelings of others then compassion is an emotional response to empathy followed by a desire to put this emotion into action to help others.

When it is cultivated in an organisation it allows colleagues to notice and respond to the pain felt by others. What is more, it is critical in fighting racism and cultivating diversity and inclusion. Academic literature suggests that there are six aspects that are relevant to compassion in the workplace:

  1. Shared values
  2. Shared beliefs
  3. Norms
  4. Organisational practices
  5. Structure and quality of relationships
  6. Leaders’ behaviours

A great place to start building a better workplace culture might be a focus on these six aspects of compassion.

The third force: solidarity

At the Polish/Ukrainian border I was impressed by the outpouring of solidarity by communities through Poland in support of refugees.” (Filippo GrandiUN High Commissioner for Refugees)

If empathy is a feeling and compassion is the emotional response to it, then solidarity is a feeling of unity based on the mutual support of a goal rooted in common values. 

Solidarity has always been seen as a classic bottom-up phenomenon. The response of average citizens to take in refugees following the Ukraine humanitarian crisis has certainly been emblematic of such a phenomenon.

Solidarity is most often the result of a response to a crisis. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was another tipping point where the solidarity to fight against racially-motivated violence, police brutality, and discrimination brought together hundreds of millions of people around the world. Research following BLM indicated that HR professionals, compared with employees in other sectors, were more open about their organisations responding with public solidarity for BLM. If so, the role of HR in building solidarity cannot be underestimated.

Likewise, other recent studies have shown that there may be integral links between employee solidarity in the workplace, top-down corporate communication, and giving employees a voice in the work environment. If such links can be fostered then it is our goal as HR professionals to do so. Solidarity is a powerful force.

Shining a light on the ‘human’

This crisis has served only to highlight the fact that when faced with one of the most horrific human tragedies to have taken place on European soil in the past fifty years, the human spirit is indomitable.

One of the lessons we have already learned is that human resources would do well to continue to highlight the first part of its double-barrelled moniker – through a focus on ‘human’ empathy, ‘human’ compassion, and ‘human’ solidarity – with perhaps less focus on the ‘resources’ part.

The thing that lies at the foundation of positive change, the way I see it, is service to a fellow human being.” (Lech Wałęsa, former President of Poland)

Interested in this topic? Read ‘How to support employees amid the Russia-Ukraine war

Author Profile Picture
Raf Uzar

Head of Communication & Development

Read more from Raf Uzar

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