This year has been heavy for HR professionals. First, we quickly took our workforces remote to adapt to the coronavirus crisis. Soon afterward, many of us had to conduct layoffs and furloughs due to a dwindling economy — never an easy task.
Then, just as businesses started opening back up, our nation was rocked by the protests unleashed by George Floyd’s death. America has been forced to reckon with the racial injustices that continue to affect our democracy — and HR leaders have had to seriously consider the role employers may play in the disparate impact of various groups of people.
What 2020 has taught me as an HR professional is that now, more than ever, we must foster transparency in the workplace. This means being available and meeting employee needs on a human level, and about confronting inequities and biases, both conscious and implicit.
These are, of course, questions that we as HR professionals should always be asking and answering. Perhaps many of us were. Regardless, now is a time when we have the opportunity to press forward on these issues. Here are three crucial topics HR leaders can tackle, head-on and in the open, in 2020.
1. Communicate With Your People About New Policies
For almost all of us, what we call our workplace has changed dramatically over the last few months. Many people started working from home, while essential workers continued going into the workplace with a plethora of new safeguards in place. In the last month, some non-essential workers have begun returning to a very changed workplace, while others, still working from home, face uncertainties about if and when they will return.
What helps ease fears and improve morale and productivity is clear, transparent communication about what employees can expect in the coming months and years. Now that we’ve had several months of working in the “new normal,” we can look to see what is working and what is not — and based on that information, make important decisions so that our employees can better plan their lives.
For example, have your people worked effectively and productively on remote teams? If so, this is the time to communicate that to employees — and start taking steps to allow for remote work on a more permanent basis. This will give employees some room to make bigger decisions about their lives, such as making investments in more ergonomic home offices or moving to a preferred locale.
Meanwhile, have some parts of business suffered due to a distributed workforce? In that case, let those specific teams know about your concerns and adapt to remedy the issues, perhaps by prioritizing those teams’ return to a socially-distanced office setting.
Have local schools announced their plans for the fall semester? This has huge implications for child care and education concerns. A simple assurance to parents that you will not force them to come into the office until their daycares and schools reopen can go a long way toward easing employees’ anxieties.
Now is also time to ask — and listen to — employees about their preferences. Which workers are desperate to return to the office for a better separation between work and life? Which are thrilled about the change to working from home? Instead of assuming we know what people want or need, let’s talk to our workers and include them in the decision-making process.
2. Address Racial Injustice and Other Social Issues
At a time when a badly-timed tweet can lead to a reputation crisis, some employers may be tempted to stay largely silent about pressing social issues. But silence is not an option today when both employers and employees are well aware that these broader socio-political concerns also affect — and are affected by — workplace norms.
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A first step you can take is to assess your organization’s demographics and allow an open discussion about those numbers with employees. This will be critical to identifying areas where issues of bias and equity are present, allowing you to address more targeted questions: What are we doing as an organization to reduce bias in hiring and promotion? Are there assumptions, habits, or accepted practices that may be impeding our efforts to create a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace?
Of course, simply asking and answering questions is not enough; companies must take action. You may start with initial steps like providing an unconscious-bias assessment and training program for all employees or starting a film or book club to discuss these issues. It’s important for HR leaders to empower employees to spot, question, and address injustices in the workplaces.
3. Break the Silence Around Layoffs and Terminations
Despite the fact that layoffs happen frequently in today’s business environment, the stigma around talking about layoffs still remains strong among employers. But efforts to keep the news of workforce downsizing quiet don’t always work, and negative stories about inhumane or callous layoff practices regularly make headlines.
During this pandemic, some companies have turned the tables by talking about the compassionate way they are conducting layoffs. Airbnb, for example, received positive press in May for offering laid-off employees a minimum of 17 weeks of severance, a year of health coverage, and outplacement services to help workers land new jobs more quickly. While not every company can afford such measures, especially when under financial strain, HR leaders can support departing employees in other ways, such as using internal networks to help re-employ former employees or exploring more cost-effective outplacement options.
When possible, I’d love to see more employers talk openly about their efforts to support employees on their way out of the organization, especially when the company is truly investing in the compassionate offboarding of employees. Making this effort helps retain positive relationships with outgoing workers so they might stay in contact as customers, clients, referrers, or even boomerang employees.
Speaking openly about layoffs also boosts morale among retained workers and can help protect employer brand — an especially important concern during an economic downturn — by getting out in front of the news and controlling the story. That way, employers can communicate the news about their workforce — including showing their compassionate treatment of departing employees — instead of letting the gossip mill take over.
This year has tested our ability as HR professionals to adapt quickly in the short term but has also created an opportunity for us to incite long-term positive change. Let’s have those tough conversations today and make 2020 a year when our workplaces and work lives change in net positive ways for our employees.