Community Conversation weighs the interests of society against the need for business survival

HR leaders discussed coping with preserving their businesses while people's livelihoods hang in the balance.

In this week’s CHRO South Africa Community Conversation, the discussion topic was leadership. As the custodians of the people agenda, HR leaders have to find ways of representing those that do not have a voice at the exco level, which can be a challenge in such difficult times when the priority is business survival.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, the Community Conversations, which are sponsored by Workday, have served as a safe space for top HR leaders to discuss the challenges, frustrations, and ideas for dealing with the virus. On Tuesday, the attendees were asked how they were coping with the need to preserve the longevity of their businesses while their people’s livelihoods hang in the balance. 

Shirley Zinn, who is a seasoned HR leader serving as a non-executive director on many boards, set the tone for the discussion, outlining the wide array of issues that HR leaders had to contend with, from the challenges that come with job insecurity and the impact that has on employees’ mental wellbeing, to the very real possibility that organisations will not survive if they do not make some difficult decisions to manage their finances. 

“How do you influence the expectations of shareholders who still expect a return on their investment while also remaining committed to doing the right thing for our society?” questioned Shirley, who suggested that it was important to not lose sight of the long-term impact of decisions that are being made in the boardroom. With the CEOs and boards that she had been engaging with, she said there hadn’t been a single individual who had been against the idea of preserving the livelihoods and emotional well-being of employees, even though calls on whether or not to retrench employees are going to have to be made.

“We have a social imperative to keep to people in jobs even if it means we must repurpose,  redeploy or create new roles. We must do whatever it is we can to work smarter,” she said, adding, however, that it would be impossible to ignore the reality that job cuts may very well be unavoidable in some cases. 

“But it is vital that we ensure we have exhausted every possible alternative before we go down that path. Retrenchments are the last thing that we want to see but, in some cases, it may be unavoidable. The sad reality is not every employee is going to find their job waiting for them after the lockdown.”

Tough balancing act

On managing that balancing act, Adcorp’s chief people officer Vinolia Singh said she was feeling the heavy burden that comes with deciding the fate of employees and all their families, “especially when you consider that South Africa’s saving culture is almost non-existent which means people rely on their monthly salaries to survive.”

Adcorp has recently appointed a new CEO, Phil Roux, who Vinolia said was the kind of person that preferred face-to-face interaction with employees and the ability to connect with people on a personal level - something that he feels is crucial in times of crisis and is an added challenge for the organisation as most employees are working from home.

“I think when it comes to striking the balance between sustaining the business and keeping employees employed, the question is, ultimately, whether we want to pay everybody their full salaries for a few months and then have to close shop thereafter or ask that we or share the burden and pain of salary cuts  in order  to continue operating for a long period of time.”

Long-term lens

Looking through this long-term lens is something that resonated particularly well with Discovery’s chief people officer Tswelo Kodisang, who said it was important to be cognizant of the opportunities that would allow organisations to emerge stronger at the end of the crisis. 

Said Tswelo: “We shouldn’t be too fixated on the now and trying to keep up with regulations and putting out the daily fires. Because if job cuts are viewed as a means to an end, this can quickly lead to the long-term demise of the economy and all organisations within it. What we should be doing is looking at what our organisations are going to look like - or should be looking like, rather - once we’re on the other side of this pandemic.”

Not all in the same boat 

Because they come from different industries, the HR leaders faced different sets of challenges - a point made poignantly clear when Shirley said that “although we are in all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat,” and that leaders needed to do what was right in the context of their own financial situations, without feeling pressure to do what others have done 

Workday country manager for South Africa said: “That really hit home for me because it is so easy for us to defer back to the notion that ‘we’re all in this together’ when, actually, that is only partially true. Some of us are better able to weather the storm than others. And that applies to different organisations as much as it does to us as individual leaders and employees.”

Old Mutual group talent and learning executive Sanjana Joshua said she had recently read a quote that  ‘‘uncertainty is the spotlight that reveals your leadership’, which could not be more true at this moment.

Sanjana part of the crisis committee at the company and said that being the HR representative in those conversations had been eye-opening because it is space in which “you're managing immediate needs from an organisational sustainability perspective while, at the same time, applying thinking to the plan ahead approach and what that will mean for the human capital strategy and overall wellbeing of employees.  

“Agile thinking and scenario planning becomes critical for human capital leaders at this time,” she said.