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Ask anyone today whose work involves interacting with other people and they’ll confirm it: incivility is without question on the rise. We’ve all seen the post-pandemic signs in the doctor’s office, at airports and in restaurants: “Please treat our staff with courtesy and respect. Aggressive and abusive behavior will not be tolerated.”

But burnout, anxiety and anger aren’t just affecting customers and patients. According to Gallup research, employee stress is at an all-time high since the pandemic. Political polarization is also contributing to toxic workplace culture. A recent Pew Research Center analysis showed that Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically distanced now than they have been in half a century. The more politically engaged people are, research indicates, the more exhausted and angry they feel. That tension is compounded during an election year.

Higher education is a people place, whether your function is fundraising, communications, student affairs, teaching, administration or service. We often complain that our institutions are siloed, yet almost all our work involves managing or interacting with others externally and across our campuses. As someone who manages teams and relationships, I want to cultivate an office culture marked by trust, humanity and collaboration.

During the pandemic, the senior officers in my department met daily to touch base, review projects and priorities, and share new information. I grew to look forward to those meetings—held at the top of the morning—as a form of therapy. They became a psychological lifeline. In addition to organizing and planning, my colleagues and I talked about how we were feeling, discussed the challenges that COVID-19 presented in our personal lives and kept each other focused on the post-pandemic future. If I could characterize those meetings, I would say they were generous, thoughtful and filled with empathy.

Now that we’re all somewhat back to where we used to be, I’m thinking of ways to keep that culture going. To that end, I began posing an unexpected question to job candidates during interviews:

“What is the kindest thing you’ve ever done for a coworker?”

Even more interesting than the answers the question elicits are the reactions to the query itself. Some job candidates sail right into it and seem happy to talk about the good turn they did for a colleague last month. Others seem shocked and a little panicked to be asked a question they haven’t anticipated and that seems to come from left field. Candidates talk about staying late to help a struggling colleague meet a deadline, dropping off a box of chocolates for someone who’s having a bad week or taking a meeting for people who are coping with unexpected challenges on the home front, such as aging parents or premature babies. Some of the folks I interview give a quick answer and move on. Others appear to relish reciting all the work they’ve done for other people, putting the focus on themselves.

But one or two candidates have gone the extra mile. They will tell me a story about the hardship someone else has endured and how they tried to make it better for them. One shared with me that they could see how difficult it was for their coworker to be raising a child alone, so they acted as a backstop for that person whenever they unexpectedly had to leave work early. Another talked about a colleague who had experienced a series of devastating family deaths that other people didn’t know about and who was clearly struggling, so they volunteered to take on a large long-term project to take the pressure off that coworker.

Hiring folks who demonstrate empathy has helped us maintain an office environment that is efficient and flexible, fast-paced but fun. In our 2023 staff survey, the top three adjectives that employees used to describe our culture were “welcoming,” “friendly” and “hardworking.” And that describes the type of people you want on your team.

Diana L. Lawrence is associate vice president for communications at Dartmouth College.

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