How Compassion Can Change Your Culture

How Compassion Can Change Your Culture

We know empathy is important in relationships, but what about at work? Karen Millsap, CEO of Egency and TEDx speaker, joins us to share her story and how she’s using empathy to improve workplace culture. After losing her husband in a terrible tragedy, Karen realized how little support our society offers for grieving people. We’ll cover pivotal moments of her experience, how to best help our colleagues after trauma and how empathy and compassion can change the workplace for the better.

MP3 | iTunes | Stitcher
 Run Time: 00:00

Take our survey to enter a drawing for a free book!

Brandon Laws: Hey and welcome back for another episode of the Human Resources for Small Business podcast. I’m your host Brandon Laws and I wanted to say thank you so much for connecting with me on LinkedIn and talking about how you listen to the show, what you’re getting from it. I love that and obviously it’s working that I say it because people are connecting with me and saying that they’re more comfortable to connect with me because I mentioned it. So I will keep mentioning it if that helps.

I also wanted to just send a special shout-out to Victoria Dew, who’s a listener. She’s put me in touch with Karen Millsap who is our guest for this episode. And this just goes to show the community that we’ve built on this podcast. I couldn’t even have imagined that we would have done it and it’s just great how people are coming together. They want to learn. They want to grow and it’s really awesome. So I really appreciate you. Keep on connecting with me. I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn. Follow me on Instagram. I didn’t privatize that, so you can kind of get to know me and my family that way, if you would like.

So on to today’s episode. Today’s guest is Karen Millsap. You may recognize her name. She has a TEDx Talk that has been circulating around quite a bit and she also recently spoke at an inbound conference over in Boston with HubSpot. So she’s gaining a lot of steam on her speaking and she began her career in HR, in talent acquisition.

But at a young age, sadly, her life got flipped upside down abruptly after her husband was shot and murdered at a gym that they co-owned together, and this tragedy that she has experienced, it led her down this different path of supporting others who have been grieving for various reasons.

Now she’s known as the “Grief Consultant”. Karen has been featured in SHRM Magazine, MSNBC and, as I mentioned, she has been a TEDx keynote speaker, which we will link to in the show notes and on the transcript and blog post that we always accompany with this podcast on the Xenium website.

In this episode, Karen and I, we talk about her story and she describes what led her down this path and we discussed – really, ultimately, what we talk about is how employers can bring more compassion and empathy into the workplace, so that we can humanize the culture a lot more than it really is. So I really think you’re going to enjoy this discussion. I loved it. It was one of my favorites. Karen is just an amazing person and I can’t even imagine what she has gone through and how she has gotten to where she is now. She’s just a strong person and I am so happy about the work that she’s doing. So I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did. Reach out to Karen. Connect with her too. She’s amazing, and she’s a great speaker.

So anyway, I’ll get out of the way and here is the conversation with Karen.


Brandon: Hey Karen. It’s so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome.

Karen Millsap: Thank you so much for having me.

Brandon: I was introduced to you from a podcast listener and I’m very grateful for it. So she sent me some of the work that you’re doing. Actually, I watched your TED Talk and it’s really powerful and I recommend it – I will put a link up to it in the show notes. I recommend that people watch it. It’s very powerful. I would love for you to just share your story because it’s a traumatic event. It’s a tough one to hear. But I think it lays context with this entire discussion that we’re about to have.

Karen: Yeah. No, I’m happy to, and thanks again for having me. As soon as I heard about your podcast, I was like, “Let me check this out!”

Brandon: Absolutely.

Karen: I love what you’re doing. So yeah, a little bit about me. I was thrown into this work abruptly and it was a personal experience that brought me here. About four years ago, my husband died, he was actually murdered. So the tragedy on how he died, and of course becoming widowed at such a young age, I mean it just really throws you into a rollercoaster of emotions.

So when I transitioned back to the workplace – I have a background in HR – and so my eyes were just really opened to this disconnect, I call it, and being an HR person, I’m there because of the human element, right? That’s why I want to be in HR. That’s why we want to be in HR. Usually, that’s how we start it off and so I was just really surprised with the lack of resources and support that are available for grieving people.

So for me, I thought that maybe I was just grieving the way that my husband died because it was so traumatic. But then my eyes were opened that grief comes in so many different forms. It’s not just the death of a loved one. It could be a divorce. It could be financial loss, changes within the organization. I mean the list goes on and on, right?

None of them – none of these losses or changes – should be minimized. So when I got a grasp on grief just being a universal human experience, I kind of stuck out my chest and said, “Well, I’m going to cure this problem.”

Brandon: Oh, yeah. I imagine it takes time, though.

Karen: Yeah, yeah. Well, and it did. I started with this idea – and really it was just based on my experience and people who I connected with – I just started writing down ideas. What can we do to – what would I have done to make this situation better, this transition better? What can we do to support people better? I just started journaling all of this stuff and finally, when I was out on my own, I decided, OK, I’m going to be the odd ball out.

A friend of mine said, “Well, you’re a pioneer.” I’m like, “I don’t really know if I like that word.” She said, “Well, you’re pioneering into a new space and it’s uncharted territory.”

So that just kind of made me realize that there’s probably a long road ahead. But then about a year into this journey, Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died and she was very open about that and her journey. So I appreciated that because I think up to that point, I really think that her experience was pivotal in our society and in our culture. Because up to that point, there was a lot of shame and judgment tied to grief.

Now you can Google “grief” and you see all of these different articles. HBR and Forbes are talking about ‘how do we support people?’ So I’m just very thankful that I had that courage, that my friend kind of instilled in me, and also the foresight to see that our individual experiences will shape the world around us.

So we really need to talk more about grief and how we can support one another, so we can experience and create healthy, healing journeys.

Brandon: Yeah. Grief is such a tough one to deal with because everybody probably has a different response to it, right? You said when this happened – was this two, three years ago?

Karen: Four years ago.

Brandon: Four years ago and – were you in your –?

Karen: I was 29. Now you’re telling everybody how young I am.

Brandon: Well, yeah, you look young. But you also mentioned that you were young and you had a small child at the time too. So nothing could have prepared you for something like this and I imagine people who’ve had a traumatic event like this could never, in a million years, be prepared for anything like this. Right away, how did you deal with this? How did you cope with this situation at hand? What was your life like at the time?

Karen: Well, a lot of Ben & Jerry’s and comfy clothes. I mean I just – I will put it to you this way. Initially, the shock lasted a long time, right? But I knew that I had two choices. I could either give up or I could get up. I was looking at my son and he asked me something one day. He said, “Mommy, are you going to get out of bed?” I just thought to myself, “My gosh, I need to do something…”

I thought to myself, “This is not going to be his story where he loses both parents.” So I just started to put one foot in front of the other. But honestly, Brandon, I was on autopilot for probably the first year.

Brandon: Because you’re in a state of shock, right?

Karen: Yes.

Brandon: Your body is not responding to any stimulus.

Karen: Yeah, and you’re just kind of like, “All right. I know I have to go to the grocery store. I know I have to bathe before I go to work.” So I just really was just trying to put one foot in front of the other and then I had an opportunity to go through – Mika Brzezinski from Morning Joe selected me as a finalist for her contest Know Your Value. In this contest, you were sent to the Human Performance Institute through Johnson & Johnson where they helped you to unpack your total well-being.

Well, it was this experience that I realized – and by the time, I went to this, I thought I was OK. I had fooled myself into thinking that I was fine, right? And probably most of the people around me too because they would say, “You’re so strong!” I’m like, “You have no idea.”

Brandon: You have no idea what’s going on inside.

Karen: What’s going on in my head. Yeah, exactly. But it really was by the grace of God that I had this opportunity presented to me. When I went, I recognized that the only way to get through grief is to learn how to take care of your total well-being. There are things that we can do to help support our emotional, mental, spiritual and physical well-being and there are physical and psychological side effects to grief. But a lot of times, people don’t realize the physical side effects, right?

So because I was immersed into this three-day program where I thought I was OK, I came out completely changed and that really helped me to turn a new leaf and try to navigate grief with a healthier perspective and with intentional shifts in my lifestyle.

Brandon: When people are going through a situation like this – and maybe you can shed light on your story a little bit – are you able to take time off? What’s your personal situation? Are you able to have help? You had a small child at the time. So are you able to get somebody to watch your child?

Karen: Well, there are two areas of support that are needed. It’s definitely personal but it’s also professional. Now, there’s only one state in the country that actually mandates bereavement leave. So that’s terrible, right? Only one state is saying, “Yeah, you –”

Brandon: What’s the one state?

Karen: Oregon. I know.

Brandon: It’s where I’m at! I don’t even think I knew that. That’s funny. I’m a marketing guy, not an HR guy. So that’s why.

Karen: That’s OK. That’s all right. Now you know.

Brandon: I know now.

Karen: But outside of Oregon actually having this law, most employers will only offer about three to five days off. That’s it. You can’t even plan a funeral in three to five days and keep in mind this is only talking about death. What if you find out that your child was in a car accident and they’re in ICU? You don’t automatically have time off for that, right? You have to find out what the policies are.

So keep in mind that grief comes in different forms. But for me, my boss was phenomenal. He was amazing because – and the reason – he told me. He said, “The only reason I know how to respond to you is because I had a near-death experience with my wife.” So he was tapping into a personal experience, which is how he was able to draw out ways to put compassion into action.

So what he did was he coordinated a PTO campaign where everybody in the company donated paid time off. So I ended up having six weeks off.

Brandon: We did something like that here at our company. A coworker’s spouse passed away and we all – I don’t know if everybody did it – but we had a lot of people pitch in. I think that’s the least you can do. It’s great.

Karen: Right. It’s really a key component to putting compassion into action. When you have experienced something like this, what can you do to just respond to their basic needs? You know, help them adjust and cope with what’s going on. So again, keeping in mind that three to five days is nothing. And also it only covers immediate family members.

So what if your aunt died and she was like your mom?

Brandon: Yeah.

Karen: They don’t know that. But if they’re so rigid in their policies, then unfortunately it brings you down another notch, right? Because now you’re handling the burden and the worry of everything else professionally. So I would say that my company did a great job. They stepped in in multiple ways to support me. But then personally, I had some changes that happened. But there were some really key people who would just come over and lay with me, if I was on the ground or if I was sitting outside on the porch.

One of my good friends, we would walk around Target aimlessly because I’m like, “I know I need to get out of the house. But I don’t know where to go.” She’s like, “Let’s go to Target,” and Target is a cure-all for anybody who wants to know. But it was just a matter of having people who they didn’t have to do the right thing, but they were just present.

As a matter of fact, I mentioned this friend. Her name is Jamie in the TED Talk. So for the first time, she heard through my TED Talk how much her presence impacted me. She called me and she was like, “I can’t believe that! I didn’t know if I was doing enough with what I was doing.”

So that’s why I do like to talk about grief and make it less awkward because really we can be paralyzed by fear and we don’t know if we should do anything or what to do. But the more that we share our stories, the more we find out that even the smallest gesture can make an enormous impact on someone’s life.

Brandon: Yeah. I think with people who are not going through it, they’re not sure what the response is going to be like or what is supposed to be said to support. In your TED Talk, you even gave an example of – I think right after it happened where – I can’t remember if it was police officer or somebody. But they just said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Karen: Yeah.

Brandon: What’s the right thing to say? I mean obviously that was just a weird – he shouldn’t have said what he said because it was not compassionate whatsoever, and not empathetic to your situation that had just happened. What is the right thing to say?

Karen: Well, this is one of the pillars of practical empathy that we do in our workshops, right? One of those pillars being communication. What do you say or what don’t you say in these kinds of sensitive situations? It depends on who you are to that person, right? Because there’s somebody who may be closer that could really get down and dirty. But just as an umbrella, I would say just be authentic. Just be real. If somebody comes to you and says, “This just happened to me,” or if you find out news about a coworker, a colleague or a friend and they’ve experienced something traumatic, your response can be, “I’m so sorry that this happened. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling. But I just want you to know that I’m here for you.”

Now sometimes people will say, “How can I help you?” and they mean well. But we’re so overwhelmed with emotion and consumed with these new thoughts that it’s hard to even wrap our mind around, “What do we need?” So just be intentional. There were people who said, “I’m going to bring dinner to you guys for the next week,” and then my office actually coordinated this fundraiser for us.

So they looked for ways that they could be helpful and intentional and thoughtful and again responding to those basic needs. So the right thing to say is an authentic response. You can even say, “Oh my gosh, this crap sucks!” Right? Like you can just say it. But it does! It does suck! We need people who are going to meet us where we are and be at that level with us.

So I would say – and then here’s another one. I actually read this out of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B, which is phenomenal. Please put that in the show notes, right?

Brandon: Yes, will do. A great book.

Karen: But she mentioned this woman who found out that she had cancer. So the response was we don’t know where this is going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But we just want you to know that we’re going to be here with you every step of the way.

Then you’re not offering this like false hope and you’re not just belittling what they’re going through. But you’re saying, “I know that this is going to be hard. But I also know that I’m going to be here with you through that.” That’s an authentic, genuine response.

Brandon: Yeah. I think you may have said this too, but instead of just saying, “Hey, I’m there for you whenever,” can you be specific or say, “Hey, I’m going to drop a meal off for you tomorrow night.” Be specific like that versus saying, “Let me know when you want a meal. I will come cook,” because the person who’s grieving is not going to reach out and say, “Yeah, I want a meal.”

Karen: Yeah, they’re not.

Brandon: I’m fine. I’m good.

Karen: No, no. I’m telling you – so from personal experience – I mean it was even hard for me to talk to my parents about my husband’s death because I didn’t want to be a burden to them.

I wasn’t sharing my emotions with friends and with family because I knew that they were also grieving and I didn’t want to add to that. So when you ask a griever, “Hey, just let me know,” well then you’re creating another level of awkwardness because they’re thinking, “I don’t know when to ask. I don’t know if …”

They don’t want to put you in a bad position. So just go right for it and say, “I’m going to do this for you,” or “Let me help you buy …” or “I will take care of …”

You know, my dad would just check the mail every day for me. I’m like, “Thank you because I forgot that it comes.”

Brandon: I’m not even sure what day it is.

Karen: Exactly, exactly.

Brandon: I think Sheryl Sandberg said this in Option B – there are people who will probably stay connected and maybe say the right things or just making sure that hey, I’m there for you if you need me. Then there are other people that just – they don’t know what to say. So they just don’t say anything at all and that’s just way worse, isn’t it?

Karen: Yeah, yeah. I hear this all the time from leaders before going in to do a workshop. They say, “I want to do something. I just don’t know what to do.” You know that happens.

Brandon: So they wait and they wait and they wait.

Karen: They get paralyzed by fear. That’s what happens. Whether it’s a personal or a professional relationship, you just get paralyzed by fear. So again, don’t think that you have to say something perfect.

Actually, let me share some things that you shouldn’t say. Maybe that will help.

Brandon: That would be great.

Karen: OK. So I tell people don’t try to one-off them with a personal story. If you experienced a divorce, and you have somebody who told you that they’re experiencing a divorce, don’t say, “Well, you will be happy in six months.” You have no idea what they’re going through.

Don’t give them religious advice. I love the Lord. Jesus Christ is my superstar. But I am telling you that religious advice will create more of a distance with that person. Just do what is applicable to your faith. Pray for them or whatever that looks like.

But you have to let their faith be a personal journey. That’s really what you need to give that space for. And just be present with them when they need a listening ear.

Then I also tell people don’t tell them to stay busy because –

Brandon: Oh, yeah. Just take your mind off of it by staying busy.

Karen: Yes. Staying busy really just delays the healing. It suppresses what they’re going through.

Brandon: Because then a year later, you may just have a complete meltdown.

Karen: Right. Exactly. You’re like, “Why is all this coming out?” Well, it’s because you’ve bottled it up for so long.

Brandon: You didn’t deal with it.

Karen: Yeah, yeah. The last one I would say is don’t tell them that time heals because that’s not true. Time does nothing without healthy action and I reference this a lot with people. I give them this metaphor. If you broke your arm, are you going to sit there and wait for time to heal it? No, you’re going to do something about it, right?

So don’t tell them – and people would tell me this all the time – in a year, the fog will lift. That is not true because –

Brandon: Maybe it’s different for everybody, I’m sure.

Karen: And it is different for everybody. Great point, yeah.

Brandon: What did you feel like when you went through that moment, what was like the kindest thing that anybody said or did for you? Because we should replicate that.

Karen: Oh, there’s so many.

Brandon: Yeah. Maybe just rattle off a couple of those. I think people need to understand that if somebody goes through – it doesn’t have to be death necessarily, it could be anything – what’s the right way to respond?

Karen: Yeah, yeah. So you mentioned earlier about the story in my TED talk – that was really the first time that I saw somebody put compassion into action. It was when the officer told me that I needed to call somebody to clean up in there.

Brandon: Yeah, that’s really harsh.

Karen: Yeah, yeah. And then his suggestion was to look it up in the Yellow Pages. I was like, “I don’t even know what you mean. Who do I call?” My pastor came over to me and he said, “Don’t worry. We will take care of it.” So I would use that as an example to say, when you see somebody in need, just act on it. Answer that call. Don’t wait. That can come in so many different forms.

So I would just say step up. Step up and respond to some of their basic needs. Again, I had coworkers and friends and they coordinated together. Not even knowing each other, but somehow they got connected and they made sure – it was about probably two months that my son and I had meals provided for us, which was great, because I was not thinking about eating. I have a little one to take care of.

My good friend Jamie who lived down the street – she’s a nurse and she worked three days a week – and every other day she would just walk down there and just be with me. She would just be present. People always ask me, “What do I do? How should I be there for them?”

Again it doesn’t matter what the situation is or the grief or loss or change that occurs. Just being there is enough. I had a lot of help with my son. As a matter of fact, the daycare around the corner reached out and said – the director – reached out and she said, “I sent a letter to the board and we have your son’s daycare covered for the next year.”

Brandon: That’s incredible.

Karen: So which was great. Gosh, there were so many – even at work, people would just say, “Let me do this for you,” or “I’ve already taken care of that,” or even just, “Do you want to get out and go to lunch or do you want to go for a walk?” I had one woman who is amazing. She and I are really close and she said, “Anytime you need to come into my office and cry, it’s OK.” There are times where you just have these moments where you don’t know what to do, where to turn. There’s a lot of shame. You’re crying and you don’t want to look like the crazy person, but you need somebody there to let you know you’re not crazy and that was her.

She said, “Just come into my office and cry, it’s OK.” So there are countless ways that people showed up. But when you listen to all those, what were they doing? It was a small gesture. It was a simple gesture. They just responded to my basic needs. That’s the best thing that I can tell people or advice I can give them, because everybody is different. What may work for one person may not work for another.

Actually let me give you one more example that was in the professional environment. When I transitioned back to work, obviously they were very gracious with the six weeks. But my boss also coordinated to have a virtual recruiter help me pick up my load, share my load. So he allowed me to come into work and transition back to a fulltime schedule by coming in two days a week.

Then he said, “You can answer emails from home if you would like to. But we’re going to share your load with a virtual recruiter. She’s a part-time staffing person.” That allowed me to again kind of ease my way back into a fulltime schedule and fulltime workload.

Brandon: Yeah, I was going to ask you about it – getting back to work, what that’s like? You obviously take the time. It’s probably different for everybody. It’s going to probably depend on how long your employer wants to let you stay out for.

But when you get back to the office, how do people treat you? What’s your mindset as far as being productive? Are you back in the full swing? Does it take time? Just give me the insight there.

Karen: Yeah. Well, when you transition back to work, it’s not about you. It’s about them. Because everybody is different on how they handle and process, right? So the way that they are interacting with you kind of reflects more upon their character, behavior or comfort level.

So for me, I had a great group of people who were around me. But it was a highly productive, highly fast-paced environment overall. And I hate to say this but it’s true – it’s a male-dominated environment. So they were just less empathetic – meaning, now that I’m a single parent, I need to be there for my son first. But if I needed to be there for him a couple times in a row, then it was frowned upon.

Brandon: OK, Yeah.

Karen: So this is what I would suggest. You have to consider the change that has occurred in this person’s life. So does that mean that there’s a temporary adjustment in their workload or their work schedule? Does that mean that now – maybe they experienced an injury where they’re not able to do as many things or they’re a caregiver and they have to be there for their spouse or their elderly parent more – so are there some adjustments, even in their responsibilities or shifts, that can allow them to continue to be productive even if it has just changed shape a little bit?

There are many ways that we can contribute to the work environment. But when life changes, that may change as well. So for me, I was very thankful that I had a good group of people who put their arms around me and helped me to adjust. But ultimately, what I found was, it was not the right environment for me because I wasn’t able to be a parent first and that was most important.

My son lost his dad and I wanted him to know that I was going to be there for him as much as I could. There’s flexibility for a little bit, but it wasn’t sustainable. I understand that. That’s fine. So thankfully, I did have the foresight to say, “OK. Well, maybe I need to work for myself. What does this look like?” Because I don’t know if I’m going to find an environment that works for me. But I’ve heard some really great stories from different clients and other companies where they say no, this is what we offer and we’re going to offer flexibility beyond whatever the policy is. We’re going to work with you. We will create some temporary adjustments. Whatever you need. What happens is when you create these impact points, then it really deepens their value in the company and they become more loyal.

They’re not going to abuse it for the next two years. When they recognize that they’re valued, then they want to show you they’re loyal and that’s how you get that – it’s almost like a law of reciprocity, right?

Brandon: I wanted to ask you – because we were talking about how Oregon is the only state that has mandated bereavement leave – what do you think the balance is between government-mandated things for grieving people, or people going through issues like this, or should we just talk about it more and hopefully employers would adapt to what people need? Kind of like some of the things that we’re talking about – like flexibility. What would you rather have?

Karen: I would say that even if there was a government-mandated policy, that employers need to create their own policies that invite empathy and compassion; that allow their managers and their leaders to offer some sort of flexibility. I definitely say that three to five days is not enough. I think there should be something mandated around that. But I think that we really need to encourage and focus more on the kind of leaders that we are celebrating. We want leaders who are going to be empathic. We want leaders who are going to realize that they’re working with people.

It’s not just about being a manager; it’s about being a leader. So as you lead, then you have to consider that you’re leading people, that we are beautifully-complex humans. The reason why I say policies are important – and we do need to have some policies and procedures that are in there to help shape it – is because some people are not naturally empathetic. That’s OK, right? That’s OK.

So if they are looking for a policy or procedure that’s going to help them respond to their employee’s life event, then you have to have something in there that is really going to support and be beneficial to the employee.

But again, if you offer and create this culture that is very human-centric and psychologically safe – people have to be able to know that they can come to you and tell you something is going on – then you’re encouraging our leaders to really come from a place in their heart and think that OK, we have to value our employees. What do we do? Even though we have a policy or procedure, I know that they need more than that. Give them that room and that flexibility to act in that space.

Again, going back to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, she said we shouldn’t have to just rely on the kindness of our bosses. And that is why we need to have these policies and procedures in place.

Brandon: One of the things that irritates me about mandates sometimes is that people just say, We have to do this. And I guess Suzy’s going to be out for three to five days because she lost her mother and she’s got to do it. Versus the other side of it would be that it’s the right thing to do. An employer wants to do this because they know it’s the right thing to do, and they care about Suzy who needs the time and they’re actually going to give her two weeks.

Karen: Yeah. And you know where that starts though? At the top.

Brandon: It does start at the top and that’s why I’m glad we’re talking about this.

Karen: Yeah, it does. It starts with your C-suite. How do they treat their people? I always tell people, especially for an organization, if you want to create a human-centric workplace, especially with compassion and empathy as these dimensions of excellence, it needs to be in your values. As a matter of fact, HubSpot, they have this acronym HEART. I forget what the letters all stand for because the story I heard was just about how they changed E from “efficient” to “empathetic.”

They made that a core value for their company and now they’re doing things that are helping to support that. So what happens is when you have your values that are supporting compassion and empathy as key components in your business – and you support that; you offer some training with that; you have conversations; you have lunch-and-learns – what happens is you’re ensuring that your company and your people are on the same page, and that’s what creates a cohesive culture.

Brandon: Let’s talk real quick about empathy and compassion. I hear those words a lot. Are they the same thing? Are they different? Define those for me.

Karen: It can get very muddy.

Brandon: It does.

Karen: Empathy is knowing how somebody feels or being able to relate to how they feel.

Brandon: Because you’ve been through it.

Karen: Right. So there are actually three different levels of empathy: I can understand how you feel, I can feel how you feel, and I can respond to how you feel. So those are the three. But compassion is actually wanting to alleviate that person’s suffering. So that’s why I like to say you have to put compassion into action, right?

Empathy is the feeling but compassion is the response. So that’s how I differentiate it for people who have that exact question.

Brandon: So empathy would always come first then, right? As it happens, you’re sort of being there and supporting. You’re either knowing how they feel. You’re feeling what they feel and then the compassion is, “OK, what’s next?”

Karen: Yes.

Brandon: What do we do in response?

Karen: Yes, exactly, exactly.

Brandon: How do we insert more compassion into the workplace?

Karen: There are lots of different ways. So I have this really –

Brandon: Let’s talk about it. You don’t have to give away all your secrets.

Karen: No, no, no. This is great.

Brandon: Tell some of the listeners about it.

Karen: So I actually created this tool called A Compassion Action Plan and if you go on to our website  , you’re going to get a pop-up and it says “Download this ebook.” It was so good and it’s so fruitful in the workshop, so I thought that everybody has to have this. I’m just going to give it away. And then we will teach the other stuff later.

So if you go to the website, you will be able to download the ebook A Compassion Action Plan and it just has all of these different ways. And we also break it down into five different life events. So if you want to do this in the workplace, then you get your group of managers together – and maybe you have town hall meetings regularly – so you break them up into five different groups. The five groups are going to respond to these life changes. It will be death, divorce, illness or injury, financial loss or becoming a caregiver.

Then what you do is you have to start stimulating this environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable because the way that you create the list of ways to put compassion into action is by their stories. That’s what happened with me. I knew what worked for me. I built this grief community of grievers who were sharing their experiences. So I pulled from that. From the clients that we worked with, I pulled from that and I said, “Well, let me just give like a high level view.” I’ve heard everything from, “I lost my grandmother and she was really important to me. So my company planted a tree in her honor and sent me a plaque.”

That’s like super cool! I’ve never experienced that.

Brandon: That’s amazing.

Karen: Exactly, exactly. So when you create that kind of environment again where people are comfortable sharing their stories, you’re going to have endless options of ways that people can put compassion into action. If their employee comes to them and says, “I just experienced this,” that’s a simple way to do it.

Brandon: At our organization – this was probably three or four years ago – we had some external folks come in and we got – I think at the time we had like 40-45 employees – we all gathered in our training room. We got in this giant circle and it started with the trainers. They talked about their life. In two-minute segments, they talked about their life. But somehow it got to like traumatic events, or just things that they’re dealing with, and then it just sort of snowballed as we went around the room.

All of a sudden, we were looking around the room, and you thought, I have never heard these things from other people. And all of a sudden, people thought, “Hey, I see the same thing as you or I feel the same thing. I’m going through the same thing. I’m taking care of –”

Karen: Yes!

Brandon: You know, a loved one who’s very old or something like that. It’s just – it just opened up our organization. It was the most incredible – it was very hard. It was a really emotional day. I’ll never forget that.

Karen: So what did you find out? Everybody is going through something, right? That’s why I believe that there should be no shame in grief, and definitely no judgment. We’ve all experienced it. You know, again, it’s a universal human experience. Every workshop I start off with this: close your eyes and raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced any of the following.

I list off these different losses or changes. Then I ask everybody to open their eyes. Everybody’s hand in the room has been raised. They see that. They’re like, “Oh my gosh. I had no idea.”

Brandon: It’s amazing why we tiptoe around this one. We can make the workplace a lot more human. It would be a lot more fun to work there.

Karen: I know.

Brandon: You would have deeper relationships. It makes no sense to me that we are not more human. What’s your company doing to really help employers kind of get through this and really see what you’re seeing?

Karen: So there are a couple of things that we offer. The first is a workshop. The workshop covers four different courses because what I found is, while I wanted to – and I told you that I was like showing my Superman on my chest or Wonder Woman on my chest – I was going to cure grief in the workplace. I was ready for it. But what I recognized was that it’s not just about an isolated grief incident. It’s really much bigger than that. It’s about the kind of cultures that we’re creating. Because if our cultures are employing compassion and empathy – and practicing that on a day to day basis; I mean, whether you’re having a board meeting or whether you’re having a one-on-one conversation with an employee – if you have compassion and empathy in your business, then that is master preparation for time of crisis. You’re already going to know how to respond to somebody when this happens. So what I found was that I just made a little bit of an adjustment. I said, “OK. Well, instead of leading with grief, I’m going to lead with compassion and empathy,” because those are behaviors. But they are hard skills that you can build to help to cultivate those behaviors.

So the workshop goes over that. The workshop will cover high quality connections, empathic listening, cooperative conversation. But we always cover life’s lemons, and that is grief. Because we need to talk about it.

Brandon: Absolutely.

Karen: So I want to give you guys some black and white. Listen, this is what you do, this is how you do it. It’s very, very helpful. But we do really focus holistically from that view of compassion and empathy. So the workshops are one offering. But then we realized that a workshop could just end up being a notebook on somebody’s desk and they never use it.

So I did a lot of connecting with people from the positive psychology and OD world, and so now what we also offer is the 100 Percent Human Program. And that’s reinforced learning. It comes through different ways. It comes through e-learning and videos and facilitator-led workshops. But what happens is it’s not just a workshop for your managers and your leaders. It helps to penetrate the entire workforce because your people need to know. This is a shift that we are committed to. This is the culture that we’re creating and this is how we’re going to do it.

So that way, they not only know, OK, I can feel safe going to my boss. But they know how to show up for each other. We don’t always go to our boss with what’s going on in our lives. A lot of times, we go to our peers. So everybody in the organization needs this level of training.

Brandon: It’s so interesting that you focus – your organization focuses – on compassion first, versus the grief side. Even though you focus on the grief side a little bit. But compassion is culture changing, in my opinion.

It’s how you interact. It’s whether or not we love coming to work with the people that we work with. The grief if just like – it’s still –

Karen: Uh-huh.

Brandon: But I think you can solve it all upstream if you can – to your point, just kind of lay the groundwork for it.

Karen: Exactly.

Brandon: I love the work that you’re doing. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.

Karen: Me too!

Brandon: You’re an amazing person and this was a lot of fun. Where can people find your work and your TED Talk or any of that stuff that you want to point people to?

Karen: Yeah. Well, if you want to learn about our workshops and the training side of it, then you can go to my company website and Agency is spelled with an “E” because we are the agent for bringing empathy to your workplace. So, for anything that’s professional.

But then, if you want to learn more about my personal ministry, helping people through grief – and I do a lot of motivational, inspirational speaking – you can just go to, and that’s “Millsap” with two Ls. I told you, people always spell it with one L.

Brandon: We will make sure in the show notes it will be correct, I guarantee you.

Karen: Oh, great, great.

Brandon: Karen Millsap, thank you for being on the podcast. It was a pleasure.

Karen: Thank you Brandon. This is a great conversation and thank you again for highlighting this topic.


Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn 

Submit a Comment