Empathy at the trucking company: a case study

From 1996 – 2010, I worked in the office of a Maine-based trucking company that grew during that time from 6 employees to 60 employees.  I began as part-time office help and ultimately became the office manager and HR Director.


There were some unique communication challenges at the trucking company. Because the drivers did their routes alone and at night, they had little opportunity to talk about what they were encountering out there.  At the administrative level, policies and procedures were being determined based on what seemed to make sense from an efficiency standpoint, however, drivers were often in violation of company policy.  There were frequent injuries, accidents & misrouted freight. 


I had begun to study Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and was becoming very inspired by the idea of empathy in the workplace.  I decided to explore ways to increase empathy within the trucking company.  I was curious what the impact might be and I figured if it could work there, it could work anywhere.  I undertook several projects to foster more connection between drivers and management. These included creating a company newsletter, quarterly safety surveys, safety meetings and special training events. Absolutely the most effective program I stumbled upon for increasing empathy was my NVC modified version of the Near Miss program.  I’d like to share how that program worked.


A “near miss” is when something has happened that could easily have resulted in injury or damage to property, but by some good fortune it didn’t go as badly as it could have.  For example, someone carrying a heavy box slips on the ice and lands in such a way that neither they nor the contents of the box are harmed.  A “near miss” could also be modified to include other types of close calls, such as an error that might have caused a serious financial problem for the company, loss of a customer, harm to the well-being of the organization, etc. 


A Near Miss program provides a structure for employees to talk confidentially about their near misses, allowing both themselves and the organization to learn from them.  My NVC modification was to add empathy as the all-important first step in our Near Miss program.  My process had three steps:


1.  An employee told me about their near miss and I listened empathically.  I was quiet and if I spoke at all it would only be to guess feelings & needs.  These employees, who did a very difficult job in the long lonely hours of the night just soaked in this experience of being deeply heard.

2.  When the employee had received sufficient empathy, they usually shifted to the details of whatever they had done that led to the close call and at this stage I would shift to listening for understanding the details along with the needs.

3.  Once the details were clear, I would accompany the employee in exploring how to prevent this happening again.  Often the ideas that resulted were a mixture of what the individual could do differently and what the company might do differently.  This often led to suggestions for policy or procedure changes, improvements to equipment, etc.  I would anonymously report the suggestions to administration and because they were so practical and often brilliant, they became the basis for many positive changes.


At the trucking company we saw impressive results from bringing empathy into our operations ~ dramatic decreases in injury rates and more compliance with company policies being two of the biggest.  Employees naturally became much more honest and forthcoming in reporting the details of their actual injuries and accidents as well.  I began using the Near Miss format for processing workplace injuries with our employees.  This led to even more improvements in our operations.


Not all workplaces are as potentially dangerous as the trucking business.  Still, with some creativity every business can find the places that could be the entry point for increasing empathy.  Looking for the circumstances where employees may experience fear, anxiety, or shame and finding a way to shift this paradigm is the way forward.  


I also want to say that empathy goes beyond simply improving safety statistics or even creating smoother communication.  Businesses and organizations face multiple layers of challenge and liability and are very dependent on their employees to carry out operations in a way that serves not only their own needs but the needs of the organization.  Businesses often need quick and effective solutions to complex and perplexing situations.  When employees feel heard, have an opportunity to contribute and are clear that they matter they become even more creative and competent and are able to contribute to elegant solutions.  As a result, both individuals and the company at large are able to weather challenges and thrive.


By Leah Boyd, Clarity Services