An ice pop factory in Wheeling, West Virginia, called Ziegenfelder Corporation, recently embraced hiring practices that ignore felony status and addiction history. CEO Lisa Allen said about 20 percent of her employees have some sort of legal or drug history — numbers that aren't surprising given the ongoing opioid epidemic. But Allen doesn’t consider that background important hiring information.
“What’s relevant is behavior, commitment, values, hard work, helping each other, those kinds of things. You do that and you’re welcome here," she said.
Allen’s company joins a number of organizations and communities that see compassion as an important business strategy. They point out there can be economic benefits from compassionate practices. And there's research to back them up.
Dr. James Doty is a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. He also founded and directs the school's Center for Altruism and Compassion. He’s vice chair of the Charter for Compassion – an organization that calls for government and businesses to make decisions through the lens of compassion.
“Compassion can mean many things to different people, but in the context of science it's defined as the recognition of the suffering of another with a motivational desire to alleviate that suffering,” Doty said.
Doty theorizes that the evolutionary success of the human species is tied to our capacity for compassion. He and others have demonstrated in studies that there are health benefits to being nice — both for the person behaving kindly, and for the person experiencing that kindness.
“What we have found is that when threat is decreased and when you’re feeling as if others love you or care for you, then your physiology works at its best,” Doty said.
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A side effect of well-tuned physiology: you’re healthier, he said. Turns out you focus more easily and the immune system works better. That can mean fewer sick days, and more focused, happy and creative members of society.
Someone who has really bought into this idea is businessman, inventor, and data-geek-turned mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, Greg Fischer. Fischer said he's taken a business model of compassion and turned it into a governing strategy.
“If people don’t feel like they are interconnected and interdependent and if people are not being invested in their human potential, you’re not going to optimize your company and you’re certainly not going to optimize your city,” Fischer said. “So, for me, a city is a platform for human potential to flourish. And that’s my definition of compassion.”
Fischer declared Louisville a “Compassionate City,” in 2011, signing onto an international charter that calls for commitments to compassionate decision making. Government-sponsored volunteerism has expanded significantly since then, and compassion training is being implemented in public schools and in the city’s jail.
But not, notably, within the police department. There are certainly other measures of compassion where the city is lagging.
“While we’re working towards becoming a compassionate city,” said Joe D’Ambrosio, a professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, “I don’t know that a lot of people on the street would say we’re compassionate.”
D’Ambrosio is a director at the university’s Institute for Sustainable Health and Optimal Aging. He’s been creating a “Compassion Index” by compiling subjective and objective measures of what he’s defined as a compassionate community.
“We’re looking at surveys and we’re looking at objective data that measure health, governance, ecological resilience, educational attainment and compassionate business standards in living,” he said.
D’Ambrosio wants to know if everyone has access to fresh fruits and vegetables, affordable housing, and transportation. And, if city government is taking care of people. He also wonders what people are doing to create compassionate environments.
D’Ambrosio’s index is expected to be released this summer. He and his team of researchers hope it will highlight areas where more compassion is needed, and they hope the index will be useful for other cities, too.