HR Leads Through a Crisis

July 7, 2020

HR Leads Through a Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the business community, shifting employees to working at home, crippling some industries while putting a strain on others to deliver, and challenging long-term plans. Yet in the midst of the chaos, HR leaders were uniquely positioned to address work challenges and concerns. Stretching across areas such as benefits, talent management, culture, and more, HR became the center of action during these tough times. 

“I don’t think this crisis fundamentally changes the role of HR,” said Lucien Alziari, CHRO of Prudential Financial in Newark. “What it does, though, is reveal how companies think about HR. For the companies that have a very limited view of the role, that’s exactly what they’re getting right now.”

Just as the financial crisis put a spotlight on the CFO and financial leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic is emerging as a proving ground for HR leaders. Here are three areas that have surfaced for HR leaders in this crisis. 

1. The pandemic accelerated trends within the world of work. 

While one major trend from the pandemic has been the mass shift to remote work, other trends have also been accelerated as companies set themselves up for future success. 

“One example at our company involved setting up an internal talent marketplace to support emerging business priorities related to the pandemic,” said Michael Fraccaro, Chief People Officer of Mastercard in Purchase, NY. “The crisis accelerated the delivery of something that will now become a longer term solution for sourcing and deploying talent internally.”

According to Allan Church, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Global Talent Management at PepsiCo in Purchase, NY, and Sergio Ezama, Chief Talent Officer and CHRO Global Functions and Groups at PepsiCo in New York City, if you believe that talent is your greatest asset, then having the right talent, processes and systems in place to drive those changes in work, technology, and employee experience and engagement is critical for success in the new normal. Their organization is working on reconfiguring the nature of careers, process digitalization, and the new face of engagement. 

2. Trust is a crucial ingredient of success. 

According to Lisa Shalett, Founder of Extraordinary Women on Boards in New York, the pandemic illuminated the difference trust makes. Beyond the implications of the moment, an important lesson from this crisis is that trust can no longer be assumed; boards must now evaluate it within and around the company. 

“We’ve gained even deeper trust from our employees, who have repeatedly told me they know from our words and actions that we’re all in this together,” said Fred Thiele, General Manager, Global Benefits and Mobility, at Microsoft, Redmond, WA. “I can’t overstate the value of that trust—it has underpinned our ability to do hard things with incredible speed.”

3. Alignment between corporate values and actions was made clear. 

IBM used the pandemic as a journey to greater resilience, as a company and as individuals. The company fortified its foundation of institutional support, experimented with new approaches and established a new standard for enterprise-wide well-being and resilience. 

Lawrence Anderson, CHRO of Molina Health of Long Beach, CA, credits the CEO with infusing the company motto of “do the right thing” into routine practices. Now, that mindset creates cohesiveness among employees in knowing there is a high level of attention and care from top leadership and throughout the organization. 

Aiha Nguyen, Program Director, Labor Futures Initiative at the Data & Society Research Institute in Brooklyn, warns that some actions may have a negative effect. Organizations considering monitoring tools for employees working at home should have a robust discussion about what they are trying to achieve. Instituting monitoring without clear boundaries and goals risks privacy violations, additional work and a culture of surveillance.

According to Mike Cordano, President of Western Digital in San Francisco, companies need all leaders to step up with empathy, inclusion and collaboration in these circumstances. Ensuring those competencies permeate the organization will be the work of HR leaders.

For more on HR leading through the crisis, read the Summer 2020 issue of People + Strategy.

The Authors: 

Deborah Stadtler is Managing Editor at SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy.