It has already been a tough year for HR professionals, says AHRI’s CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett, but they’ve risen to the occasion.
So far 2020 has given us plenty of reasons to celebrate HR professionals. Australian employees walked into the new year distressed, concerned about an ecological disaster and unstable economy, and COVID-19 meant they weren’t ever given a proper chance to recover.
In an interview with HRM, Australian HR Institute CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett praises the efforts of HR professionals across the nation. She says that they should take a moment on International HR Day to recognise the good work they’ve done. Without their efforts and expertise, we wouldn’t be seeing productivity and team cohesion thriving in a virtual workplace and ambiguous job market.
“It has been wonderful to see how prepared HR professionals are to share their skills, experience and advice with each other,” says McCann-Bartlett. “There’s an enormous sense of community among the HR profession. Not only are they prepared to go the extra mile to support their organisation, they’ll do the same for their profession too – that’s quite unique.”
HR professionals have demonstrated just how valuable and strategic their function is in the way they’ve responded to this crisis.
“The early response from HR was really impressive,” says McCann-Bartlett. “When we think about the beginning of the pandemic in Australia, life was still continuing as normal, but HR was already starting to adapt and look at what the potential issues might be – they were able to stay slightly ahead of the curve.
“Particularly in smaller organisations, where HR teams are smaller, this crisis has demonstrated their versatility. For example, generalist HR practitioners have been able to undertake a whole suite of activities that support the organisation, often on their own.”
McCann-Bartlett says HR professionals were quickly able to get a sense of employees’ worries and concerns while also considering the various business impacts. It was their years of experience in doing this that enabled their responsiveness.
As reported in the May cover story for HRM magazine, AHRI members from across the nation proved just how valuable their skills are in the genesis of a crisis. That’s not to say it came without its challenges.
AHRI’s Tasmanian state council president Alayne Baker CPHR, employee relations manager at TasTafe, remembered having members reach out to her with queries around what the restrictions would mean for their businesses.
“Within a couple of days, I was able to provide them with the information they needed. But I also realised how serious this issue was. All of a sudden there was a huge need – and a huge gap,” she said.
Athena Chintis CPHR, head of people and culture at Cliftons, and president of AHRI’s NSW state council, was one of the many HR professionals across the world who was having to help leaders to make really tough decisions around stand downs and helping vulnerable staff.
“We have a huge number of casuals on our payroll and not everyone will be eligible [for government support]. So, I’m trying to manage expectations, field enquiries and make tough decisions about who meets the required criteria. It’s been very challenging.”
However, she wasn’t about to leave these vulnerable employees in the dark. Chintis went the extra mile to ensure staff who had to be stood down had a lifeline of sorts by partnering with a job swap platform.
“Organisations with workers who have been stood down, or just need more work, register and put out the link to their affected employees. These staff then apply for short-term roles with other employers. The idea is that your employer will still be your primary place of work – hopefully these staff come back – so it’s just about supporting them through this difficult time.”
The pandemic has also cemented the importance of the CEO/HR lead relationship, says McCann-Bartlett.
“In times of crisis and uncertainty, everyone becomes more of who they are; you revert back to your very natural, visceral responses. Sometimes that means peoples’ responses can be different to normal. Particularly in a leadership team, where you’re having to make those hard decisions under stress, some personalities or responses can rub up against each other.
“HR professionals are great at sensing when that cohesion is about to fall apart and they have the ability to bring people back together again,” she says.
As the saying goes, it can be lonely at the top. McCann-Bartlett says this becomes even more true in a crisis.
“In times of uncertainty, being a CEO can be very lonely. Who do you talk to about the issues you’re having around making a decision or if you’re uncertain about the future of the business? HR provides that relationship and support.
“Conversations between the CEO and HR lead have to be undertaken with trust on both sides. CEOs need to understand that HR professionals are able to balance two themes: what’s good for the business financially versus what’s best for employees. They shouldn’t be conflicting, because what’s best for the employees should be what’s best for the organisation, but you can sometimes feel a tension between the two. CEOs need to trust that their HR lead can manage that tension.”
The next goal
HR has done an exceptional job of caring for the mental health of staff during this pandemic, but some people predict the worst is yet to come. Staff could have developed mental health conditions while working in isolated conditions, or existing challenges may have been exacerbated.
Workplaces will likely have to adjust their wellbeing strategies in the coming months and HR professionals have the opportunity to help sculpt this. McCann-Bartlett encourages HR to remember the importance of individual care, rather than looking at mental health from a whole of organisation view only.
“A suite of responses and tools for employees is really important. It’s not HR’s job to deal with every individual in an organisation. Depending on the size of your organisation or HR team that could actually be impossible. It’s HR’s role to coach managers to be at the frontline in terms of identifying mental health issues in individuals, helping them to understand how to have those critical conversations and knowing when and where to direct them for professional support.”
Moving forward, managers and HR professionals are going to have to learn how to lead through uncertainty – that will be part and parcel of the future of work. The ability to make quick, confident decisions will be just as crucial as any other technical or core skill.
“The HR community’s response to COVID-19 has been absolutely incredible. They’ve kept their organisations working, they’ve focused on the mental health of employees and shone a light on that for the rest of the organisation. I’d like to personally thank all HR practitioners and AHRI members who’ve been incredibly responsive.
“As we’re also celebrating National Volunteers Week, I’d also like to acknowledge and thank our 250 AHRI volunteers for their efforts. I look forward to seeing how we’re all going to adapt to this new way of working in the future.”
The theme for this year’s International HR Day is ‘Connecting people and organisations’. AHRI encourages you to mark the occasion by shouting out any great HR professionals in your network and use the hashtag #internationalHRday to spread the message.