Experts weigh in on HR's role in times of crisis

Deb Hileman, Nicola Kleyn and Inge Walters unpack HR's response to the crisis.

Since the dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic, HR leaders have had an increased responsibility as the custodians of the people agenda. Every decision they have made has had a multiplier effect on the families of staff, the communities employees come from, and the business itself.

Organisations experienced fallout from Covid-19 across a wide spectrum, from being completely disrupted and shut down, to continuing at least somewhat as usual, right through to being busier than ever before.

has fallen into four important areas: physical health and wellbeing, remote working, issues related to jobs and work continuity and an urgent need for mental health support for employees. Many companies had remote work policies for at least some of their employees before Covid-19, but few were prepared to have their entire staff working from home full-time.

For Deb Hileman, president and CEO for the Institute of Crisis Management, a key distinction between the Covid-19 crisis and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 is that the impact of Covid-19 has been broader and more sudden. “We saw economies crash overnight with many industries irrevocably changed. In the United States, several historic retail brands have filed for bankruptcy. Millions of people have lost their jobs forever. Leaders need to understand the depth and breadth of the crisis, lead with empathy as they make difficult decisions.”

Professor Nicola Kleyn, dean of Executive Education at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, believes that the biggest impact of the crisis has been the destruction of the social fabric of society. “Covid-19 has revealed extreme inequality and poverty. The stress on the system has led to a rise in social unrest. Globally, we see greater populism from citizens and a greater authoritarian response from governments.”

Nicola is the co-author of When Crisis Strikes together with journalist Francis Herd. The book looks at a variety of crises in the age of social media in South Africa and abroad, with examples of who got it right, who got it wrong and how they could have done better. She is also a judge of the 2020 CHRO Awards. For Nicola, a key difference between a corporate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic is the duration of the crisis. “A corporate crisis typically doesn’t last for several months. We don’t have any certainty on when this crisis will be over. There are so many unknowns.”

Transparent, regular communications

As with any crisis, having clear communications is key. “We’ve definitely heard the importance of a lot of clear, transparent, and, maybe most importantly, very human communications,” says Inge Walters, an independent leadership practitioner and co-creator of The Igniteher women’s development programme.

In times of crisis, Deb believes that employees tend to be overlooked. “This internal stakeholder group tends to be shoved down the priority list. Leaders make the mistake of not sharing information timeously enough. They need to be challenged to keep communicating regularly as well as finding new ways to communicate,” she says.

Nicola believes that one of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to go deep into a problem-solving zone at the expense of communicating and engaging with all stakeholders. “This is not the time to lock yourself away from the world. You need to be a visible leader. This an opportunity to deepen relationships with people. This involves constantly engaging with shareholders, customers and employees.”

Many HR leaders have had to restructure or retrench within their organisations. Inge believes that the leader needs to know that clarity is kindness when delivering difficult news. “There is a real danger of over-communicating by justifying actions or filling silences. It is important to also give space for the listener to process the bad news and ask questions.”

The role of the leader

HR has a key role to play in developing leaders, ensuring they are successful and holding them accountable. Karina Jardim, Executive at MAC Consulting Human Capital Management, believes that HR leaders need to act as the compass for the C-suite. “The CHRO needs to work very closely with the CEO. This is the perfect time for HR to reset the organisation – to consider if the culture, purpose and values are still relevant or if they need to change. The worst mistake an HR leader can make at this time is to simply be an instruction taker.”

Leaders require enhanced skills in managing from a distance, motivating employees toward a vision amid ambiguity, providing calm and clarity, aligning work among team members and building community. A common challenge for leaders is maintaining cultural connection within the organisation and helping employees fight off those feelings of isolation or disconnection.

“Leaders can play a role in normalising what is happening and help team members to articulate their emotions. They can also encourage employees to check-in with one another on a regular basis,” says Inge.

“This crisis provides the ideal invitation to leaders to go deeper into their leadership abilities. This is the time to connect with other leaders outside your organisation. To see shifts in the environment and collaborate to shape where things are heading. A common mistake that leaders make in a crisis is to radically change their leadership style. Good leadership is still good leadership. Being courageous, curious and compassionate is important at any time,” says Inge.

Nicola acknowledges the conflicted position that leaders may find themselves in. “Leaders have to balance optimism and hope, a sense that we will come through this while acknowledging the real challenges, pain and discomfort of Covid-19. If leaders can’t show empathy, they can’t lead under these circumstances.”

Deb believes that this is an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate their humanity and frailty by dropping the authority persona. “Sometimes our expectations of leaders are unrealistic. Employees are very responsive to leaders who show their vulnerable side.”

A mental health crisis

Globally, employees are reporting mental health issues related to the pandemic. “We are only beginning to understand the intensity of the mental health crisis related to Covid-19 is,” comments Deb. Nicola also anticipates a wave of incidence of post-traumatic stress among employees during and post the crisis.

Here HR can offer support in everything from employee assistance programmes and access to psychologists, to programmes for mindfulness, exercise, nutrition and financial counselling.

Karina feels that key mistake that organisations make is to expect their employees to separate their personal and professional lives. “Employees should be allowed to bring their full authentic selves to work each day. This includes being able to have bad days. The lines between work and home life have completely blurred – many employees are working 24/7. Here HR has a role to play in forcing people to take leave to reset and recharge.”

Burnout is also a real danger for leaders at this time. “Leaders must keep their strength up. This involves knowing limitations and managing stress. It is important to look after oneself first. This could include meditation or taking quiet walks by oneself,” adds Deb.

Preparing for future crises

Deb sees two distinct camps of organisations; those who are investing in future crisis preparedness and those who don’t see the need to prepare. “Smart organisations recognise that they need to have a plan in place to deal with a crisis. They need to train and teach people how to use the plan and update this plan on an annual basis.”

Nicola believes that this crisis provides the perfect chance for leaders to take stock. “The role of the leader is to learn from this crisis and determine what permanent changes need to be made. Leaders need to build adaptive capacity and organisational resilience.” Here she thinks that South Africans are particularly strong at adapting and dealing with volatile environments.

For Karina, preparing for future crises involves building up resilience within organisations. Typically, leaders struggle to admit that they battle with resilience. “Leaders need to be coached on developing resilience. It takes discipline not to panic when confronted with a crisis or a major change. Instead of going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, leaders need to be able to pause, think and plan the next steps. If you spend your time in constant crisis mode, you are not going to survive as a leader.”

A world post-Covid

The working world post-Covid promises to be quite different from that of the past. Karina predicts a continuation of today’s remote working together with many companies restructuring of the operating model. “Working under Covid-19 has really shown which positions are essential and those that add no value. Here, HR will play a crucial role in rethinking and restructuring organisations.”

Nicola believes that the Covid-19 pandemic will have several positive long-term effects. This includes more acceptance of the intersection between personal lives and work. “Many women hide their home responsibilities. This pandemic will promote the lowering of these barriers and this will be positive for women with children.” She also believes that this time is an opportunity for individuals and organisations to create long-lasting goodwill in the communities they serve. “Impact can be so meaningful – there are so many ways to reach out to people and deepen human connections."