This piece was co-authored by John Poirier, Ed.D., SPHR who is President of Poirier & Associates, Inc., a coaching and consulting firm. John was also the Senior Lecturer in Human Resources at Bryant University for nearly 20 years.
Human Resources is at a critical stage in the profession’s evolution and is uniquely positioned to help organizations navigate the disruption caused by COVID-19. As the first wave of vaccines roll out and we glimpse a time when the pandemic winds down, what of HR’s history best informs its role in helping organizations meet today’s challenges? Specifically, what insights from the profession’s past 50-years can help to prepare Human Resources professionals for today’s unique challenges? And what framework for moving forward is most helpful in helping HR professionals to be effective and to advance the profession as key to grappling with the pandemic’s challenges going forward?
Some Quick Background
At each stage in the evolution of Human Resources, environmental factors have influenced the mission and roles of the function. COVID-19 is the newest and perhaps most forceful stimulus for change, and we are only now beginning to witness what that might mean to HR and its stakeholders – which, in 2020, is just about everyone. And yet, it’s perhaps understandable that Human Resources professionals are often unaware of the evolution of the field, which has been changing constantly since its inception in the late 19th century.
The excesses of industrialization first prompted the need for a people-oriented organization, then called Industrial Welfare. This was the progressive era when sweatshops littered the urban landscape, children and women worked 12-hour shifts and employees literally lost their lives on the job. As a result, Industrial Welfare focused on safety inspections and the mitigation of labor abuses.
Continued poor working conditions gave rise to the modern labor movement during the 1930s and 1940s and Industrial Relations (IR) was born. IR was responsible for negotiating contracts, addressing grievances, and creating a more equitable relationship between management and organized labor. The growth of large multinational businesses following World War II created greater complexity and people management requirements. So, we started to see specialization in new areas like recruiting, compensation, and training in addition to safety and labor management — all under the banner of “Personnel.”
And, finally, the most recent branding coincided with the need for the strategic planning and forecasting of “Human Resources,” given dynamic changes in markets and technologies. Thought leaders like Michael Beer and Dave Ulrich made important contributions to the function as the economy expanded, the Internet was launched, and the employee-employer value proposition began to change. Beer suggested refinements in work processes to make them more efficient and engaging and Ulrich redefined roles as HR champions and change agents.
Regardless of the era or its branding, the work of what is now called Talent Management has been largely transactional for most of its history. Like Finance, IT and other support functions, HR had important compliance and administration roles to fill and it needed to be done with the highest quality for the sake of the business and the safety of its employees. That changed for most HR organizations with the turn of the century as they gained “a seat at the C-suite table” and became full business partners.
What comes next?
HR is now caught up in the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what are HR’s priorities at this moment? How can HR best serve the immediate needs of employees and of the organization?
It might make sense if HR moves back into compliance mode. Senior managers are turning to HR practitioners for advice on how to “reset.” But most of those questions are short term in focus. Do we need to install plexiglass? How often should we take employees’ temperatures on the job? How do we enforce requirement for the wearing of masks? And the list goes on.
However, the post pandemic workplace will be radically different from the pre-COVID-19 status quo. So, while HR needs to be strong advocates for employee safety, HR professionals must also be prepared to lead the transformational change that will be driven by the increase in remote work arrangements, demands for technology that can facilitate non co-located productivity, and the values clashes driven by societal changes such as Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and Gay Pride.
So, what is HR’s role in all this? Our response is grounded in two core beliefs and three actionable steps that make sense for the profession now:
- Remember that “HUMAN” comes before “resources” in our professional identity. And here we call upon the concept of Pikuach Nefesh, which literally means “save a life” in Hebrew. It is the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule. The HR profession will better serve all its stakeholders by incorporating this principle into its policies and practices as it guides the transformation to the post-pandemic reality. Examples follow below.
- HR is central to helping organizations leverage important changes that the pandemic’s urgency uncovered. For example, by all accounts, employee productivity has increased since people started working remotely in early March. This phenomenon follows years of managers insisting that those same jobs could not be performed remotely. Why then return to old work designs? Also, the impact of employee business travel restrictions has proven to be minimal. So why have people travel when we re-open? Why not pick the low hanging fruit of enhanced work-life balance? Summarily, the transformation of work affords many opportunities to get pay equity, gender identity/orientation equity and racial equity right.
Those two core beliefs can guide the examination of how COVID-19 mania has fundamentally changed the employment value proposition (EVP) for both employer and employee. Employers need to recognize that they are not so much reopening as restarting. Business processes and even entire functions will require structural, procedural and cultural changes. And while a balanced scorecard perspective calls for monitoring financial performance and customer satisfaction, HR should ensure, as business partners and change agents, that no one is unnecessarily placed in harm’s way in the rush to be done with COVID-19. More specifically, HR needs to compare and contrast employees’ perception of the EVP pre and post pandemic to guide its decision making.
The EVP will also have to be revisited using several lenses. By this we mean that HR will need to learn more about how it and the organization as a whole is perceived by specific cohort groups. As important as they are, none of these questions are easy ones. What do employees of color know about your stand on Black Lives Matter? How does the Black community regard your position? Do women feel that your pay practices are equitable? How does the LGBTQ community feel about your brand as an employer? But most importantly, how comfortable do you feel about the organization’s and the profession’s brand on these issues? Characterizing any of these as “systemic” is really different language for apathy toward action.
Where from Here?
The following is a simple and cost-effective framework for HR leaders to use right now to be effective and to advance the profession:
Empathize: If you haven’t already done so, communicate with your talent, be they furloughed or working remotely, letting them know that you understand that things are difficult. Ask them about the particular aspects of their jobs that are challenging right now. Acknowledge those challenges, thank them for enduring them and show extraordinary appreciation for their extraordinary effort. Without making excuses, tell them you don’t have all the answers but will remain transparent with them so their expectations can be realistic.
Analyze: Review any exit interview and/or stay interview data you have. Look for themes related to what your employment value proposition was pre COVID-19. Determine which aspects can and should be maintained. Determine which should or could be altered or eliminated. Use the findings to communicate your vision for the post pandemic organization; not a “re-opening.”
Synthesize: Evaluate how changes to the business strategy and operations will affect your people strategy. Listen critically to line managers for their perspective on how long it will take to establish a “new normal.” Examine your employee demographics so as to anticipate employee concerns about returning to work; then address them. Expect a bump in voluntary separations as some will not want to subscribe to the value proposition. Go beyond thinking about how many people you will need to transition to include how you give them a voice in the process
We contend that the past has taught HR professionals that competently performing in administrative and advocacy roles is not enough. While we still have to deliver on the basics, our credibility will be sustained only if we create new people practices that facilitate the execution of the business strategy in the post COVID-19 workplace. To do so, we also have to be agents of change who remain brutally honest about the new normal while remaining credibly hopeful about how our organizations can thrive again in a post-pandemic world.