HRM reached out to HR organisations across the globe to find out how they’re coping. What we found was hope.
Sitting down to write this piece I thought it would be a pretty run of the mill breakdown of the international response from HR to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I ended up having two extremely insightful discussions with two very different people on opposite sides of the world.
Overwhelmingly HR are stepping up to the plate in this crisis. They’re doing it for their employees, their organisations and also each other. Both my interview subjects talked about the ‘togetherness’ they’ve felt with their HR communities.
Incredibly trying times for employees
When I spoke to David D’Souza, membership director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the Prime Minister of the UK Boris Johnson had just been admitted to hospital and almost the entire population were trapped in their homes.
Not unlike the situation in Australia, D’Souza said the biggest thing HR was grappling with was the new legislation affecting employment.
“One of the big things that is happening right now is that the legal frameworks are changing incredibly rapidly. The initiatives put in place by the government require a lot of interpretation.
“Organisations need to move rapidly to implement them but the clarity isn’t always there either in terms of previous case law or guidance from the government.”
He said the other big issue was around communication. Unfortunately, also like Australia, COVID-19 has wiped out business across the country, leaving organisations without any cash flow and many people unemployed. How HR has approached these layoffs has varied. D’Souza has his own advice as to correct practice.
“More so than ever, even under pressure, take the time to pause and think about the person on the other end of the communication.”
Of course, this isn’t an issue unique to the UK and Australia. The United Nations is predicting 195 million jobs will be wiped out by COVID-19. Some are even predicting that in the US, the country with the highest recorded COVID-19 fatalities, the jobless rate might reach as high as 20 per cent.
President and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. speaks to me from Virginia, US. He urges people to remember the ‘H’ in HR stands for human.
“Someone described HR as the first responders of business. Health care professionals are on the front line of the health crisis, but from a business perspective, making sure your business is continuing smoothly and your employees are happy, healthy and mentally looked after – that’s on HR.”
Like first responders, HR’s tasks can vary from pleasant and easy to emotionally painful and difficult. Also like first responders, Taylor says that HR’s job is even more difficult now.
“I received a media call recently from a journalist who asked, ‘This company called all ten thousand employees and laid them off via phone, is that proper?’. If you’d asked me eight weeks ago the answer would have been ‘no’. But in these circumstances, you’re not going to call ten thousand people back into work just to fire them. That doesn’t make sense.”
Both D’Souza and Taylor mentioned furloughing (similar to Australia’s stand down laws) as a big concern for their HR members. Though the legal instrument has been used in the States as recently as 2019, in the UK the word hasn’t been used since 1908.
“I think furloughing is something we’ve struggled a bit as a country to come to terms with. We just haven’t had to deal with it before,” says D’Souza. “It’s not something the UK has ever really done. Suddenly you have HR practitioners having to wrap their heads around an entirely different concept.
“Where things have gone really wrong, is that people have hastily written a letter that gives the bare minimum legal outline of this situation to the employee. What they’re not doing is thinking about the fact there is a human being and a colleague at the other end.”
From the US perspective, Taylor says one of the big problems is that not everyone understands what furloughing is. Most people assume they’re being laid off.
“Once you take people through what furloughing is they’re ok with it, but it’s a change and we know change cannot happen overnight.”
He also says companies haven’t abandoned their people all together.
“We’re getting a lot of questions from people asking, ‘What can we do for employees we’ve had to lay off?’ And I think that it’s comforting to know there is a lot of care going around.”
When discussing the future of HR, both D’Souza and Taylor say this is HR’s time to step up and be the leaders this crisis needs.
Taylor compares HR’s role now to how IT professionals handled Y2K. “It’s our moment and my advice is to seize that moment. It’s not a challenge, it’s an opportunity. It’s not for the CFO to step up and lead this, this is HR’s issue.”
D’Souza says the CIPD has been fielding many questions from HR professionals who have found themselves the go-to for emotional support from employees.
“As it becomes less about suppressing the disease and reaching the peak [of the curve], it goes very rapidly from ‘oh I knew someone who knew someone’ to speaking regularly to people who have relatives in hospital.
“The nature of HR will change as people look for support with bereavement and grief. HR needs to stand and offer support that way, and not just make sure they’ve got everything in order contractually.”
Of course, HR also needs to look after themselves, says D’Souza.
“They need to make sure they’re taking the time to care for themselves and their own mental health and reaching out to colleagues and people around them if they need.”
Compassion really is everywhere
Overseeing member-based organisations mean D’Souza and Taylor have front row seats to an extraordinary moment. The industry is coming together like never before.
Taylor says HR is holding up their organisations and each other. “The common enemy is COVID and it’s keeping us from going back to normal, so HR are working together.
“We’re seeing an uptick in empathy. People tend to do that in crisis. We’re hearing ‘we’re all in this together’. The everyday human being, the one that cared if you were conservative or liberal, now doesn’t care about that. We’ve done away with a lot of tribalism.”
D’Souza echoes Taylor’s sentiments.
“We’ve seen our community jump into action like never before, like our volunteers who were up and running webinars within a week of lockdown. We also have dedicated online communities on Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s been incredible to see the sharing that’s gone on in those communities. And not just about the technical aspects of the job, but also people sharing how they’re feeling. Seeing the support from others in the profession is really inspiring stuff.
“I think this crisis has the opportunity to make us a far more compassionate society. We’re seeing some of the worst of times but we’re seeing some of the best from people.”
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