Here’s a word that you may not hear very much on the job: Empathy. That’s a word that basically means an ability to show compassion and understanding for another person’s feelings. According to MSNBC, a growing number of business managers are finding that a little workplace empathy can go a long way toward keeping staff productive and happy.

Dev Patnaik is an employment expert who wrote the book Wired To Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. He says the workplace has traditionally been the very last place people expect to find empathy, because most of us know that if we’re not being productive, we’ll likely be fired and replaced. You hear it all the time: “It’s just business. It’s not personal.” Patnaik believes that companies that show the most care for their workers are the ones most likely to survive a tough economy. Why? Because research shows that compassion can actually make a company stronger and more productive.

For example: One shipping manager interviewed by MSNBC says he chose to move to a four-day work week last year, rather than cut his work force. As a result, his company actually saved money and boosted their customer service ratings. Another manager gave his employees extra time to clear out their desks and say goodbye to coworkers after he received orders to lay off 25% of his staff last year. He says the decision didn’t make him popular with executives, but he noticed an immediate loyalty boost from his remaining workers. That’s why experts say the most successful bosses are the ones who can make tough decisions, but also show a willingness to bend the rules when appropriate, and do what’s best for the workers. That inspires employees to help the company succeed, because they believe their boss has their best interests at heart.

Tthere’s a new Web site which rates job empathy, called WiredToCare.com. It includes an “Empath-O-Meter,” where people can rate the empathy level at their own company. So what are the companies with the highest Empathy Ratings right now? Commerce Bank, Harley-Davidson, and IBM.