Experiment With Equity: How COVID-19 Is Forcing HR Leaders Adapt for the Better

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May 12, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As a long time executive coach (over 20 years), I have clients in a variety of organizations–many in technology. I have noticed some changes in my coaching calls over the last seven weeks. I am seeing my clients challenged in ways that I haven’t seen before. Parents are challenged by having children at home. Families are challenged by having to share a wi-fi connection. Single people living alone are feeling stressed, and I am seeing signs of depression I don’t usually see in my work. Organizations have been faced with furloughs and lay-offs, and the work has been difficult, emotional, and exhausting. It is also important to consider those who are still working and the challenges they face.

In HR, the policies and procedures are important, but the leadership sometimes happens when leaders listen to what isn’t being said. Policy is created to help those who can’t necessarily advocate for themselves. Training and learning opportunities are put in place to teach skills that aren’t intuitive. These help make the playing field more equitable for those who are marginalized–who might not have a clear voice. It is in creating policies that support diversity, so privileged candidates don’t have a leg up in hiring practices. It is in making accommodations in the workplace so people who have challenges can be productive contributors. This is human resources at its best.

The other day, I was working with a senior executive, and it came up how he was grappling with the frustration of a co-worker’s children showing up on a Zoom call. It is already so difficult to be working remotely, and a child walking through the room can be distracting and can zap creativity and productivity. Should he mention it? Couldn’t she do just one hour a week where the kid isn’t an interruption? It is natural that some questions that come up. Would some kind of Zoom policy be helpful? As the time extends on sheltering at home, what is HR’s role in helping people be productive at home? Should the leader mention it to her? As I discussed this with my client, we continued on to talk about how often the calls children interrupt are often the calls women workers are on. I can honestly say that in the last seven weeks, I have rarely had a call interrupted by the children of a male client. This got me thinking about what this means and how leaders should be thinking about this time. How does this issue fit into the broader array of equity issues? What should HR executives be thinking about in the short term? What should they be thinking about in the long term?

There are reactive leadership styles–the types of leadership people display when they are afraid and trying to make the world better. There are many of them, but these are the ones I focus on:

  • dominant leaders
  • influential leaders
  • stickler leaders
  • conflict-averse leaders
  • naysayer leaders
  • complacent leaders
  • manipulative leaders

I recommend becoming an experimental leader to overcome these reactive styles–to become neutral before experimenting to become an experimental leader that follows the data. These times of stress are likely to spur many of these reactive styles–people feel stress, and they want to abate their stress and fear as quickly as they can. Reactive leadership styles sometimes yield short term results.

People who are under stress require a much more nuanced approach. Those stressed by living and working at home need compassion and grace. With schools closed, people with children at home will be in it for the long haul. They may need flexibility, kindness, and understanding. Those already challenged by other circumstances will be more affected by these unfolding challenges. There is a fine line between asking people to attempt good work, and in accommodating the needs of the workforce in order to have diversity and loyalty when we get through this. It reminds me of Seth Godin’s question, “What is it for?” Why is equity in the workforce so important?

Leading HR right now has some major challenges. Beyond lay-offs and furloughs, there are the questions of how to have good policy to support those working and to make sure those policies support the values of inclusion.

What policies are needed to allow people to navigate having children home from school?
What training/learning is needed for leaders to understand equity and how some employees might be disproportionately affected by the current circumstances. What is needed to foster compassion and understanding for those having a strong emotional response to the uncertainty of this? What is needed to make space grieving for those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic?

I believe this is a time for deep reflection and understanding of what is important. As a leader in HR, you can make sure to hold space for those who can’t speak–to make sure the way organizations grapple with uncertainty doesn’t further marginalize the people in the organization. Sometimes this is less about policy and more about deeply understanding the needs of each individual.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.