The Essential Role of Human Resources In Times of Crisis

February 25, 2016

The Essential Role of Human Resources In Times of Crisis

The Winter 2016 issue of People + Strategy is a call to action. Unexpected outside-in events are now everyday organizational realities. Violent swings in the market, sea changes in technology, ever-present political turmoil, disasters whose source may be natural or human—whatever it may be, HR is more vital to the enterprise than ever.

What is HR to do? Plan how to keep people safe in an emergency and how to secure vital assets. Prepare employees to survive during a crisis—and help them thrive afterward. Ensure that core people processes are reliable no matter what might happen. Yes, yes, and yes.

We would add one more, vital task for HR. In our book, Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most, we draw from many sources of expertise concerning crisis management. We conclude that the central process in an emergency is leadership. And the essential role of HR in a time of crisis must be the same: leadership.

What do we mean? Too often, no more is expected of HR heads than to be supportive, transactional, or expert. Regrettably, HR professionals may settle for being at the table where decisions are made. In a crisis, more is required. We recommend two ways HR executives can lead when it matters most.

First, suspend everyday expectations of what HR does and take charge.

Being comfortable on the leadership team is just the start. When conditions call for immediate action, HR leaders must welcome discomfort, be assertive, and lead from the bleeding edge. Be a first rather than a supportive second. Do not wait for the leadership team to make assignments. Go where you must. Permission can wait.

In interviews for our book, we were told how citizens in Oklahoma City responded when the Murrah Federal Building was bombed. They ran towards the explosion. That story struck us as an example of courage in chaos. There was no one to orchestrate activity. In those awful moments, people rushed headlong into danger to save lives. They were leading.

No badge is required when everything is on the line. Turn towards the source of trauma. Be alert for opportunities to go where you are needed but no one sees it but you–on the front line, with the third shift, at the field office—or on the hot line. Tell the truth as if it needs no pre-approval—it does not. Make urgent decisions on behalf of the greater good. Lead.

Second, counsel and coach leaders up and down the organization—they need you, and you can help yourself by helping them.

Here is the missing message in most leadership courses: Crises hit leaders hard too. Even when a shock to the organization is short lived—we employ the example of rogue waves, as being both sudden and passing—the aftermath and cleanup can be endless. It can be difficult to know when or if recovery occurs. Leaders are susceptible to trauma too. In our interviews, leaders who described upheavals from years ago spoke as if they would never forget. The psychological effects of terrible events can last a lifetime.

Of course, you are in demand as "the people person" and you may require attention too. But there is no obligation for you to become a casualty. The most profound discovery of our research is how leaders help organizations recover, restore and regenerate. When leaders lead from their best selves, as human beings aware of everyone's needs in a crisis—including their own—they help themselves as they help others. And the organization as a whole is the beneficiary.

We spoke with a chief human resources officer in the New York area who was awakened at night by a call about an employee homicide/suicide in the company parking lot. He was shocked, and angered, and saddened, yet he had no time for-self-care. There were urgent tasks to accomplish on behalf of families, coworkers and company. At the end of the long day he turned to his HR colleagues for personal support. He needed to process his feelings and "do something good with it."

His response combined several themes that we see as leading by delivering helpful help. Jumping into the situation without delay and being the accountable person; counseling colleagues and consoling others; being mindful of the larger themes of organizational shock, mourning, and recovery; relying on coworkers to help him through his dark nights. Perhaps his company as well as he was better prepared to cope with a devastating event that occurred later: the 9/11 attacks.

A rogue wave may indeed engulf an organization. No doubt, leadership, without a resilient organization already in place—and lacking a degree of luck—may not be able to save the day. HR leaders can be most helpful in increasing the odds of success in a crisis by shrugging off limiting self-perceptions or organizational expectations and leading in these two ways.

The Authors: 

Harry Hutson is a trusted advisor to leaders on every level of the pyramid. His strength is framing complex issues in a clear way and speaking truth to power in a way that can be heard. Hutson's current and former clients range from large to startup—public, private and nonprofit. For 25 years he served in senior human resources and leadership and organizational development roles in four multinational companies, and as an independent consultant. Hutson is an instructor in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. His lastest book is Navigating an Organizational Crisis (2016). Learn more at


Martha Johnson is a leadership expert who draws on the lessons learned as an executive with a more than 30-year career in business and government. Learn more at