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The Urgent Role of Human Resources Webinar Summary

Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis: A panel discussion with Cornell and industry experts on how HR can quickly rise to the challenge of managing a workforce during a crisis and preparing for what lies ahead.

Human Resources has the responsibility to weigh in with a critical voice on decision-making that impacts the organization and employee well-being. The goal of this panel is to provide key principles regarding the role of HR leaders and practitioners during a crisis as it relates to the facilitation of collective thinking and dissemination of information to support the organization, its employees and the broader community.

The panel presents both academic and practitioner views with insights from Dr. Christopher Collins, Associate Professor of Human Resource Studies at Cornell ILR; Ms. Beth Flynn-Ferry, Executive Director of the Center for Advanced HR Studies (CAHRS); and Ms. Kathleen Westlock, CHRO of Livent Corporation. Dr. Brad Bell, Professor of Human Resource Studies at Cornell ILR, moderated the session.

Below is a recap of the discussion, including questions provided by the audience:

A key role of HR is to enable and support effective decision making, especially that of the senior leadership team. How can HR influence and impact the effectiveness of decision-making during times of crisis?

Dr. Collins shared that his research with CAHRS and interviews with senior HR leaders has led him to identify three ways HR can influence and impact the effectiveness of decision-making:

  1. Bring more voice into the room. There is a tendency, especially during crises, to create an insular team that tries to answer all the questions. As a talent scout, HR may be more aware of other people that can bring varying perspectives, even contrarian viewpoints, to the conversation. By expanding the voices in the room, company leaders can then make better decisions.
  2. Be aware of team dynamics and politics. Politics tend to increase in stressful situations, and it is HR’s role to know these politics, influence people to think about the broader good, and make sure the team is functioning at a high level.
  3. Center the team on the values, culture, purpose and mission of the organization. HR should remind leaders of why the organization exists—centering on the purpose of the organization will ensure leaders make the right decisions that sit well with the company and its employees.

Ms. Westlock added that it is integral for HR to take care of employees and the organization in the short-term and in the long-term. And the way to do that is to make sure your voice is heard—voice what needs to be done now and what leaders should be thinking about in the future.

What are key actions HR leaders can take to enable or support more effective communication at all levels of an organization in crisis?

Ms. Flynn-Ferry pointed out that while PR is the voice of the organization to the external world, HR is the voice of the organization internally. She identified five things HR should think about:

  1. Be transparent and timely. Share what is known as soon as possible. Don’t make guarantees that cannot be followed through with but do tell employees the steps the organization is taking to keep their jobs safe.
  2. Provide a single source of information with multi-level leadership messaging. There should be one place for the latest information, messages from the CEO and also other leadership levels to help translate how the information impacts different places in the organization.
  3. Use a variety of tools: email, SMS, polling, etc. But avoid bombarding so as to not overwhelm recipients. Set up a rhythm of when to communicate.
  4. Establish two-way communication, formally and informally. It’s important to share information but it’s also important to receive feedback and questions.
  5. Be a great role model. Coach leaders to share what’s happening personally—how they’re managing work and home life, taking breaks, etc. Vulnerable leaders create trust with their employees.

Ms. Westlock added to err on the side of over-communication rather than under communication. Try personalizing the messages; consider what employees want to know and hear. And HR should remember that they do not have to tackle these tasks alone—reach out to your team and networks to learn from others and gain various perspectives.

How can HR leaders help support and foster the well-being of the teams they are supporting?

In conversations with senior HR leaders, Dr. Collins has found that this depends on how well HR knows the team they’re supporting. If they know these leaders, they will be able to perceive their level of engagement and have one-on-one conversations to see how they’re doing. The point would be to not just have conversations about work.

To support their well-being, HR needs to make sure senior leaders are getting sleep. Research shows that after two to three days of lack of sleep, people’s cognitive levels decrease and their judgment resembles that of an intoxicated individual.

To avoid those situations, HR can also consider how to integrate other talent. Use “high flyers,” employees that manage stress well, those who work in tough markets, etc. to share in the burdens. Making the team bigger to disperse the work and to give time for others to step away can greatly help senior leaders deal with personal and business stress.

Ms. Flynn-Ferry pointed out that if HR does not do these personal check-ins, no one will. And during check-ins, encourage leaders to get exercise and offer to be their sounding board to talk through difficult decisions.

On the business side, it’s important to push for role and decision clarity. Since one person cannot do it all, it’s advisable to let a team focus on crisis management decisions and another team to execute on those decisions. And lastly, HR can remind leaders to rely on company mission, values and purpose to make decisions and move forward.

What is the role of HR leaders to balance the short- and long-term considerations?

Ms. Westlock recommends to work in the now but also ask your team and colleagues what-if scenarios—this will help HR see around corners. Insight can also be gained through networks—even those with different perspectives.

HR should also consider protecting employees in the future. HR has the eye for talent and talent management: identifying high potentials and knowing how the organization is taking care of them, pointing out critical roles and who is in that pipeline.

Dr. Collins agrees that scenario planning is very important since there are few facts: If we think this is going to happen how do we do things the right way in consideration of the long-term purpose, mission and values of the company.

And remember that communication is key throughout the process. Employees should be kept informed so nothing comes as a surprise. HR leaders need to coach senior leaders to be transparent about the now and the future, even without having definitive answers.

Ms. Flynn-Ferry added a unique perspective: Since COEs may now have a little more time, there is opportunity for pursuing new things, analyzing what we didn’t know the company needed and perhaps what the company doesn’t need anymore. It’s an exciting time to reprioritize based on newly revealed insights that may have taken a lot longer to show.

Is now the time to roll out development programs to keep employees engaged? How should companies think about employee engagement since many people are focused on the crisis?

Dr. Collins, who has done research in employee engagement, first commented that employee engagement means a lot of things. Right now, the important thing to do is to capture the hearts and minds of employees, make sure they are fully committed to the organization. Leaders can accomplish this through transparent communication and having direct conversations, which shows the organization cares about the employee.

Now may not be the time for all organizations to offer development or training programs, but in certain organizations facing an up-ramp, it could be beneficial. Training on working remotely and getting new hires up to speed quickly would be helpful engagement activities.

What metrics, surveys and data should we be gathering now?

Ms. Westlock shared that Livent Corporation is surveying its employees to not only see how they are doing personally in their new work-from-home situation but also gathering data to understand how they’re working and its implications for the future. Another data point is identifying essential and non-essential roles, who are in those roles and the pipeline for those roles.

She advised that an employee engagement survey would not be her priority right now—what’s more important to her connecting with employees, especially women in the workplace, to see how they are managing.

Some people believe “HR as an employee advocate” is misleading (like pitching managers vs. nonmanagers and management vs. labor), some people see HR as only the advocate for culture and values – are they one and the same, or different?

Ms. Flynn-Ferry sees these two roles as different. HR and leadership need to steward the culture and values of the organization as an anchor and center, but if there is no voice of the employee at the leadership table, something is missing. Higher up in the organization, sometimes business has a stronger voice so bringing in the voice of the employee is very important—HR can play that role.

We’ve been speaking mainly about senior HR leaders supporting senior leadership teams. What about line managers with direct contact to employees, those on the frontlines, how does HR support them?

Dr. Collins believes the role of HR is similar up and down the spectrum, the only difference is the scope of responsibility of the teams they support. HR still needs to check in with those managers and coach them in how they communicate with their team.

What should we do with performance management during times like this? Employees can’t hit targets, how do we adjust the processes, goals and expectations?

Ms. Westlock responded to not throw performance management out the window but completely redesign and re-engineer them. Organizations under siege do not need more HR processes. Instead, turn to “HR lite”—have goals and performance management but hear the employees’ voices.

Ms. Flynn-Ferry thinks this is an opportunity to re-contract on goals since things are changing and some activities may not be as important anymore. HR can encourage their team and others to get focused on productive things, flex their innovation muscles, find new ways of doing things and make different decisions. She also pointed out that during this time, recognition—especially for heroic efforts and different ways of doing things—is very important.

Should everyone be working on the crisis and coaching employees, or should there be a segmentation of HR responsibilities?

Dr. Collins recommends to separate teams, one to focus on the crisis itself and another to work on the day-to-day since it is difficult to split your mind. He adds a qualifying statement: This doesn’t mean you don’t check in on the rest of your team.

How do you focus on the most marginalized populations during this time, employees facing challenges in a lot of different realms?

Ms. Westlock advised knowing your organization’s employees—and where they fit in with the government identified groups (e.g., who is essential and non-essential, who can come to work and who should stay home, etc.). HR should help business leaders know and understand their employees too so they can provide coping skills and mechanisms to employees reacting differently to the situation.

Dr. Collins added that this is where role modeling comes in: show your vulnerability and let employees know it is okay to get help.

Watch the recorded panel discussion.