Covid-19: A time to be compassionate and rational (part 2)

Blog posts

30 Mar 2020

Ed Griffin

Ed Griffin, Director of HR Consultancy and Research

Every day we are reminded that we are in uncharted territory and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the torrent of frightening news. For employers this is a time for finding ways of trying to help the survival of their organisation and if that’s possible, working out how to operate in the new and very different context. Never has the idea of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous) been more real.

So if you’re working in HR, what are the realities of the job right now and the priorities to have the right impact for the organisation and its people? For many organisations there has been a battle between survival and looking out for the workforce. There are some very mixed stories of how organisations are dealing with this and where their focus starts - including how staff have been dismissed and others where employers have had their workforce still at work in potentially unsafe conditions. It’s important to note that there are also many positive stories and ways in which colleagues have supported each other, and in some organisations HR has earned a new respect for how the team has responded.

Having started my corporate career as an accountant before moving into HR I learned early on the importance of understanding the financials of the organisation in order to make better informed decisions in relation to the workforce.

I used five questions to help make those decisions and I found they were also useful in helping managers think about what they did too. The five were:

  1. Does it make business sense?
  2. Is it legal?
  3. Is it fair?
  4. Is it consistent?
  5. Will people feel they’ve been treated with dignity?

They’re clearly not rocket science, but they worked for me because they combined rationality and values. I struggled with the order of the questions feeling that the dignity question could come first. What I found was that it was a really important final question to test a decision that encouraged me to think about being face-to-face with an individual employee, and knowing if they felt like I had treated them as a fellow human being or simply as a resource.

In these uncertain and threatening times, HR professionals need to be able to make decisions that are both quick and well-considered. That’s a big ask of anyone, and particularly when the decision-maker may also have heightened levels of personal anxiety or fear. I think the five questions can be a useful guide at this time for HR professionals in the decisions they need to make. Taking each in turn:

  1. Does it make business sense? For any organisation right now there are likely to be questions of financial survival that have to be considered that start with “how long will our current cash position keep us going if our income dries up?” And may progress to “what opportunities for new income does the current situation provide?” Being grounded in your financial reality can feel brutal but at this time for many organisations there are constant questions about viability that will override everything else.
  2. Is it legal? Employment law is there for a reason and when followed in practice can protect both employees and employers. Looking at the legalities of a situation can often simplify the decision to be made. There’s also now new guidance for organisations and employers in dealing with the impact of Covid-19 - much of this is written in straightforward language, so there's no excuses for not following it.
  3. Is it fair? And 4. Is it consistent? Questions of fairness and consistency are often closely linked at work. When difficult decisions are made it is often helpful to understand how one decision may impact individuals differently. For example, the move to working from home has potentially different issues - lack of space, inability to afford heating the home all day, having young children at home, lack of suitable workspace or equipment, etc. When your people are all working from home, is it possible for everyone to get heard and understood. This is also a good reason for not taking important decisions on your own - diversity amongst those making decisions may help to make a more balanced choice.
  1. Will people feel they’ve been treated with dignity? When making difficult decisions, sometimes the only positive that someone may have is how they feel they were treated. It’s important that each individual can at least feel that they were treated with dignity and respect, even if they are being made redundant.

Even if these questions aren’t for you, I know from talking with other HR professionals and organisational leaders, that they have found it helpful to have a framework of some kind to help them navigate making challenging decisions.

Once over some of the initial urgent questions that are about basic organisational survival and ensuring your people are safe, there’s a world of new questions that HR professionals will need to address: Who can we deploy onto different work and how do we support the wellbeing of our people remotely? Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing our research, expertise and perspectives that may help HR teams and managers navigate through these challenging times.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.