What do hospitals, police stations, fire stations, grocery stores, and schools have in common? They employ essential workers, aka HEROES. Doctors, nurses, custodians, police officers, firefighters, cashiers, stock people, teachers…these are all roles that have been essential to keeping daily life moving and safe throughout the pandemic. What else do these businesses and industries have in common? They employ Human Resources (HR) professionals. I think it is not overstating it to say that the world has seen some heroic actions by the HR person throughout 2020/2021. I have never been so proud to be part of the HR profession and witness the superhuman efforts of so many of you…the HR superstar, the HR hero.
Let’s take a moment and review some of the grand things HR people became involved with, all falling under the job description line ‘Additional duties as assigned’. Who remembers in the early days of the pandemic working with an executive over the great ‘mask’ versus ‘face covering’ debate? How about figuring out if this virus should be called ‘COVID-19’ or ‘Coronavirus’ while educating employees that other virus names bring discriminatory overtones. Then there was the shopping online and in-person for hand sanitizer (what’s this I hear I can make sanitizer at home with vodka…ahhh vodka, wait what was I making…a covidtini with olives?!?). Scouring store aisles for toilet paper (did I really consider a new way of recycling old PowerPoint presentations as the new TP?). Buying masks (“hi, yes, I am looking for the N95s or is it the B52s”???).
Then the real fun happened. The Employee Relations efforts. Echoes of employees saying things like “Hey, Robert sneezed, send him home for two weeks or I quit”; “I am coming to work but I can’t wear a mask because I have lung issues”; “I counted the cubicle separation, and Sally’s chair is not six feet from my chair when she does her morning desk-yoga”; “My sister’s husband’s cousin might have been exposed to someone with COVID last week and I was at a party with my sister a month ago. I need to take time off with pay just to be sure I am not infected.” While some of these situations seemed to border on the ridiculous, the HR person knew that so much of this was based in fear. What is it Maslow tells us? You aren’t going to have a self-actualized employee if they are not assured of their safety and security.
From the sublime to the serious. The HR person truly put their company-appearance-standard-approved hero-capes on when they had to truly respond and find solutions. Addressing people’s fears? Created a daily news feed updating employees on the latest information about the virus and what the employer is doing to keep the employee safe. Minimize potential work exposure to COVID-19? Established a way to make the in-person positions become virtual roles without losing productivity. Accommodate leave for the infected or possibly exposed? Developed flexible leave plans providing options for people to take time off of work without fear of losing their jobs.
In no other way were HR people asked to step up more than when responding to employee illness and sometimes death. Managing the administrative part of sick leave and life insurance wasn’t the difficult part. It was comforting family members; informing and offering emotional support to fellow employees. Dealing with the anger, frustration, and fear over things like knowing that going to a family picnic possibly killed a beloved coworker.
A hero doesn’t ask ‘should I?’. A hero states ‘I will” and ‘we will”. A true hero continually evaluates along the way the best way to do things in the most caring, compassionate, and efficient manner. Finally, something our training prepared us for – evaluating things.
I am a big fan of asking people to think about what their legacy will be. I truly believe that an HR person will be able to look back at their efforts during this great pandemic and know they made a difference. They helped keep people employed, yes. They also helped reduce fear. They ultimately found ways to show their employees that they matter. That is an incredible legacy. 50 years from now, people will still be reflecting on how HR filled that hero status in the workplace without hesitation…about the same time companies have finally used the final rolls of toilet paper that had been stockpiled so very long ago!
John Newton SHRM – SCP SPHR
Kindness is the bottom line.