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Home > News > Why HR needs to take the lead in this most human of business crises

April 28, 2020

Why HR needs to take the lead in this most human of business crises

We’ve seen lots of business continuity plans over the years, working with HR Leaders to develop their employee support. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a designated survivor scenario planned out. The indiscriminate nature of coronavirus means there’s no guarantee your usual leadership team will be there to lead tomorrow, or next week. The plans you probably have, with your CEO, FD or COO front and centre of an emergency response, simply might not be possible.

Plus of course most crisis plans focus on loss of trade for your specific business or industry, a business premises being out of action, reputational damage or an internal incident. Coronavirus, this all-encompassing crisis, not only forces each organization to create a never-before-contemplated response from scratch, but those responses are being compared to every other employer too. Organisations big and small are being championed or vilified by their reaction to COVID-19.

Which is why HR leadership is so important right now – more than ever before. Framing your organisation’s response not just as ‘What do we need to achieve’ but also ‘how will this feel for our people’ has to be given equal priority. And if one or more of your usual leadership team are ill, then HR leadership being demonstrated publicly and consistently will be even more essential, for several reasons.

You’re the voice people need to hear from

This isn’t an economic crisis, or an industrial crisis. It’s a human crisis. The knock-on effects are most definitely economic and industrial, but first and foremost it’s about people. And when people are scared or ill, talking about a company’s bottom line is tone deaf at best. Which is why HR leadership is the most important voice – either directly to employees, or setting the cultural response for the leadership team. Everything you say will be framed by what it means for your people first.

You have an adaptable leadership style

The nature of leading an organisation’s people plan means you’re likely to be good at changing your leadership style to reflect the situation. Great HR leaders deal with financial and legal situations that require a hard-nosed level of detachment, yet the next day you’re able to wrap yourself emotionally around a person or team that need kindness and gentle guidance. That adaptability is a much-needed skill right now as employees move through the emotional curve of loss and fear, as well as coping with short term and long term changes. Even the United Nation’s guidance on leadership in emergencies emphasizes the importance of leadership adaptability and empathy

You know your people

You and your team are closest to the real needs and concerns of your employees. What the boardroom assume will be the biggest concerns are, naturally, framed by their own perceptions of what’s most important unless presented with information to the contrary. It’s you and your HR team that are embedded on the shop floor, as advisors and business partners, that have the low down on people’s concerns. These will change over time as government advice changes, more employees are placed on furlough or more working environment changes take place. Not to mention maintaining two-way conversations with employees working from home, and keeping communication open with furloughed employees.

At some point, there will be a shift from pausing and stopping to slowly starting up again – and to get to that point, focusing on a people-centred response to coronavirus places HR leaders at the very heart of recovery.

Author: Emma Gunton