“The fact is, if we work with people, we are working with people in trauma,” writes Katharine Manning in her new book, “The Empathetic Workplace,” published Tuesday. “Lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover are the quieter, and thus more insidious, costs.” 

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Manning’s practical guide on how to interact with, understand, and support those experiencing trauma in the workplace is apropos of the times, a balm for the soul amidst the backdrop of a pandemic.

As humans, we require empathy—both the giving and receiving. The capacity to appreciate what someone else is feeling through their frame of reference is not a uniquely human characteristic. Elephants are known to mourn the loss of a herd member for weeks, and any dog owner will tell you their four-legged friend can respond acutely to their emotions in times of distress. But perhaps unlike other animals, humans do sometimes shelve their empathic impulses, particularly in work settings, where the traditional school of thought is employees should check their personal lives—and baggage—at the door.

But according to Manning, that’s just not possible, nor is it productive from a business standpoint. “Trauma is not a jacket we can shed when we walk through the office door. We carry it with us,” Manning writes. Like it or not, employees shoulder the burden of their baggage all day long; in the end, the deadweight can have damaging, costly effects on the employee and the company. Sure, a rising tide lifts all boats, but if one boat has an unchecked leak, it’s still going to sink.

To avoid the undesirable consequences of a tone-deaf workplace—absenteeism, turnover, lost productivity, toxic culture—Manning stresses the importance of building and maintaining trust. She argues trust is achieved through standing by employees in difficult moments. However, “you can’t provide help if you don’t know that something is a problem. That’s why it’s essential to cultivate a work environment in which it is acceptable to discuss hard issues and ensure that when someone does come forward to share something difficult, he is met with a helpful response,” Manning writes.

“From a compliance angle, if you’re responsible for people—whether you’re a manager of the department or in another role that involves interaction with people, you need to understand basic things about trauma.”

Katharine Manning, Author, “The Empathetic Workplace”

Herein lies the thrust of “The Empathetic Workplace”: Untrained humans tend to freeze or bumble in moments where another individual calls upon them to show grace, calm, and measured compassion the most. For reasons Manning’s research uncovers, from the brain chemistry behind a human response to threat to the myriad ways a listener can be emotionally impacted by another person’s traumatic disclosure, it is clear humans require education, guidance, and training around emotionally fraught interactions.

The purpose of “The Empathetic Workplace,” then, is to teach readers how to tap into their empathy constructively and leverage their soft skills practically. Manning gifts the reader with a full arsenal of tools, boiled down into a memorable, five-step acronym she aptly names the LASER method: Listen, acknowledge, share, empower, and return. The goal is to stay “laser focused” on what needs to happen in a challenging interaction to support the person in trauma.

Q&A with the author


CW: What should the role of a compliance practitioner be in preparing for sensitive interactions with employees in trauma?


Manning: They should know what the security options are at their organizations and how to contact the security department in an emergency. They should know their company’s mental health resources, employee assistance program (EAP), community resources, suicide hotlines, and where to report child abuse. You don’t know when somebody is going to come through the door saying, “My ex-husband is outside, and he’s got a gun.” Know the plan. Make sure managers especially know what resources they have.


[Manning’s book lists sample resources and gives advice on the types of services of which managers and others responsible for employees should be aware. You can also download a list of community resources here.]


CW: What else can organizations do to foster and encourage a culture of open communication where personal trauma is concerned?


Manning: Talk about challenging issues like the struggles around home schooling, and make sure that everyone in the workplace knows about the resources the company offers, because you don’t always know who needs help. When someone does come forward, ensure that he is met with an empathetic response—this will help him, as well as others who aren’t yet brave enough to share what they’re struggling with but are watching closely to see how he is treated. Finally, it’s important that leaders not only tell their employees that it’s okay to talk about challenges; they have to walk the walk. When a leader has the self-knowledge to understand his challenges and the self-assurance to discuss them, that models for others that it’s okay to be human, to struggle, and that we can rely on each other for support.


CW: What are some signs of a company where a culture of empathy has NOT been established?


Manning: One thing to look at is how much people are using their workplace’s EAP. It’s not a case of nobody is using it, so you’re good. Quite the opposite. You’re looking for the reverse. It’s a question of whether people feel comfortable using it.


Look for a sense of psychological safety. Do people feel comfortable asking questions or making mistakes? If you’re a manager, when is the last time someone disagreed with you? If you can’t think of it, then that’s a sign. People should feel comfortable disclosing mistakes or challenging personal circumstances. If you’re not hearing those kinds of things—because those things do exist, there is no question of that—that is another sign.


The Empathetic Workplace” by Katharine Manning is available now.

The author’s five-step method to navigating hard—but necessary—conversations with employees, colleagues, and peers who come forward with distressing disclosures is a must-read for everyone from managers to human resources officers to compliance practitioners. Manning’s patented toolkit is tangible, nuanced, and portable for all manner of delicate conversations and uniquely sensitive scenarios.

Manning is president and founder of Blackbird, a consultancy that provides training for corporate, educational, and government entities on working with those in trauma. Indeed, Manning has staked her life on the importance of trauma-informed interviewing and practices. The author has spent 25 years training and consulting on issues of trauma and victimization, including 15 as a senior attorney at the Department of Justice, where she advised on such high-profile cases as the Boston Marathon bombing, Bernie Madoff, and the federal case against U.S. Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser, among others.

Manning sews a colorful patchwork of vignettes to elucidate the many points of her LASER method, from pop culture references (Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo) to corporate news headlines (Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica) to firsthand accounts from colleagues, acquaintances, and her own rich experiences.

Take this one:

An employee approaches her manager about a personal matter. One of her colleagues has been sending her lewd and inappropriate text messages, and it’s been distressing her for weeks. She’s humiliated but resolute: Either she discloses the details so something can be done, or (confidentially) she finds a new job away from her harasser. So, she discloses.

The manager listens. He prepares to speak. What he chooses to say, and how he chooses to say it, will mean everything. Not only will his response impact the mental health, productivity, attendance, and future loyalty of this employee, but it will hold the potential to reverberate culturally—for better or worse—throughout the organization.

In an interview with Compliance Week, Manning says this scenario “sends a chill down the spine of a compliance officer. It’s really hard when you’re at a big organization, and you have thousands of people having tens of thousands of conversations all the time, and you don’t know how things are going. You don’t want that response to end up in headlines or in a lawsuit.”

“From a compliance angle, if you’re responsible for people—whether you’re a manager of the department or in another role that involves interaction with people, you need to understand basic things about trauma,” adds Manning.

The book alludes to the concept of institutional betrayal: the idea that there is a separate kind of trauma that comes from a negative response from an institution that the individual relies on for support. For some people, the institutional betrayal is worse than the underlying trauma, Manning explains; it creates a breach of trust that can linger for a very long time. Alternatively, if an organization supports its staff through challenging times, that can create long-lasting trust for the organization and one another—and that sense of connection will be the thing that lingers for years.