Put Employees First, Work Second During a Crisis

Businesses are a lot like families. With the right leadership, they can flourish for generations—even in the face of crisis. Clear core values that promote productivity and engagement are critical in this mission. But today, in the midst of a global health and economic crisis, a company’s core values are no longer enough. The value that outweighs all others is the one at the heart of being human: Empathy.

Like the character of a person, the true culture of a business is revealed by how it responds during adversity, not when everything is running smoothly. Now more than ever, CHROs are in a unique position to lead by example and show employees what their company is really all about.

Prioritizing employee experience

The staggering rate of layoffs and furloughs underpinned by economic uncertainty has everyone looking for reassurance and guidance from decision-makers. In addition to continual transparent communication, HR leaders need to consider the most pressing concerns for employees and address them with an empathetic approach.

We all want to make a difference right now—and philanthropic contributions to our communities and frontline workers are both necessary and noble. But employees need to know their employers are taking care of them first, especially if they’re facing pay cuts, furloughs, and layoffs.

Before extending your reach outside the organization, try to prioritize ways you can alleviate current professional, financial, and emotional strains for your own “essential” workers. Here are a few of the ways our own team is trying to make a positive difference in our employees’ lives.

Offer a flexible schedule

Allowing employees to set their own hours is one of the simplest and most practical ways to reduce stress and even increase productivity during this time. The hours people used to work may no longer be practical depending on additional commitments like homeschooling, child care, or helping a family member in need.

Here at Phenom, we’re encouraging managers to explore various options with direct reports and then communicate changes to the larger team, so everyone can still work effectively. Updating shared calendars and noting availability status (away, sick, in a meeting, etc.) on direct messaging apps can help ease transitions into more flexible schedules.

We’re also reiterating our unlimited paid time off policy. People have different capacities for sustained workload, especially under duress. Giving employees the freedom to take breaks when they need them can transform a work culture into one that engenders trust and respect—an essential quality as we continue navigating unchartered territory together.

Leverage an employee assistance program (EAP)

There’s no better time to enlist an EAP—a third-party run benefit program that assists employees with work or personal problems that may impact their job performance, health, or mental and emotional well-being. Under ordinary circumstances, an EAP can become an important part of creating a better work culture. Right now, it can be a lifeline for many workers who need various support services, from financial and legal advice to wellness matters and relationship management.

EAP counselors typically provide assessment, support, and referrals to additional resources such as professional therapists for a limited number of program-paid counseling sessions. Virtual sessions make the process convenient and practical. If you already have an EAP, make sure your employees know about its benefits and how to take full advantage (family members are also eligible). Consider adding EAP details to a COVID-related communal resource, and remind employees about its availability during weekly all-hands meetings and email updates.

Support learning & new opportunities

Do you need to repurpose employee skills to meet the demand for different jobs in the wake of sudden changes? Before furloughing employees, see if you can offer temporary “gigs” or project-based work to fulfill current needs and keep people working longer. For example, to help fulfill content needs, we’re posting short-term writing projects staff members in any department can easily apply for.

Now is also an ideal time to help employees identify skills gaps and pursue potential growth opportunities. If your company offers an internal mobility platform or a learning management system (LMS), remind staff of their features and 24/7 availability. Helping employees upskill and earn professional credits and certifications is an invaluable motivator and will foster eager brand ambassadors.

Establish hardship funds

As the unemployment rate continues to increase, financial difficulties are a new reality for many. Work with leadership to establish hardship funds for employees who are in a pinch, and offer short-term loans to help them pay for their rent, mortgage, groceries, medicine, medical bills, etc.

We’re currently using our own company-led charity to sponsor the initial funding for this type of initiative, and employees can voluntarily contribute. Workers who can benefit from the fund submit an application, and a reviewal process takes place to determine eligibility. Creating a work environment where colleagues can step up and help each other if they have the resources fosters unity and boosts morale.

Invest in employee-related philanthropic interests

Before donating to outside causes, see if you can lend a hand to initiatives your employees are personally vested in. Making a difference closer to home tends to resonate louder. For example, we have an employee whose wife is a nurse on the frontlines. To help her and her colleagues, we partnered with an employee who runs a local coffee shop as a side business. Together, we were able to fuel hospital staff through extra-long hours and support a small business at the same time.

Giving employees a place to voice their own ideas for assistance can generate more ideas. You can leverage a dedicated instant messaging channel for quick sharing, or encourage employees to work with any volunteer agencies or employee resource groups (ERGs) they may be a part of. We’ve had employees write encouraging letters to healthcare professionals, mail delivery workers, and nursing home residents—a small yet powerful act of kindness.

Don’t forget to showcase philanthropic successes in photos or videos that you share with the whole company. These are the feel-good stories that foster camaraderie and company pride.

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Reward, appreciate & promote engagement

It’s easy to forget the little things when working remotely—but employees need to feel valued, especially when daily in-person validation isn’t possible. Thank employees for a job well done, no matter the size of the project. We’ve set up channels in our instant messaging platform devoted to honoring birthdays, work anniversaries, and gratitude in general. Making others feel special is a surefire way to promote positivity and productivity.

We’re also continually working to create helpful virtual activities for interested parties to participate in. It’s important to remember the situational context so you develop opportunities that cater to different groups of employees. While some are craving lively social events such as online Jeopardy and happy hours, parents and caregivers may appreciate the calm that morning meditation or yoga can deliver.

Demonstrating compassion during layoffs

In the unfortunate event you need to lay off employees, going beyond the usual exit checklist can make a world of difference to the recipient and remaining employees. A healthy severance package is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider an approach rooted in empathy to preserve dignity and retain the loyalty and engagement of employees who remain. Here’s how:

Be an advocate

The best HR departments want anyone who’s leaving the company to feel like they have a partner in the process. This is where leveraging your internal networks can be instrumental in helping displaced employees land on their feet. Since jobs are our business, we feel especially committed to helping people find new opportunities if we need to consolidate. A key part of the process would be checking for open positions on our customers’ and partners’ job sites and then making appropriate referrals and introductions.

If a person doesn’t have all of the necessary skills for a given position, being able to recommend ways they can upskill during this time is the kind of actionable information they can use to move forward. Are they interested in virtual interview coaching? Set aside time to make it happen. The goal is to give them as many tips and tools as possible to make the transition easier.

When a person’s employment at your company ends, make it a habit to follow up after a month to check-in. This kind of follow-through is the difference between employers who sever relationships versus those who cultivate brand advocates for life.

Encourage communication

Recovery from a layoff is faster if managers and employees are allowed to speak freely about what’s happened. Inviting discussion can be a great opportunity for the team of surviving employees to pull together and renew ties. Be as transparent as possible about future layoffs to stifle fear of the unknown and prevent unfounded gossip that can erode team stability.

Setting dedicated virtual office hours for employees to ask questions and voice concerns is a best practice that can be very effective. Not only does it give employees a safe space to communicate, but it can also provide insight into leadership about issues that need to be addressed.

Leveraging blogs and other content to give answers to some of the most frequent questions around furloughs and layoffs is another option to keep employees in the know.

There’s never been a better time to turn the lens inward and see what we can do for others. In HR, that means prioritizing and addressing the changing needs of the people who make our own jobs possible.

Brad Goldoor is the Chief People Officer and co-founder at Phenom where he oversees employee engagement initiatives, hiring, and onboarding. Brad is a passionate entrepreneur focused on creating innovative, positive, and “not normal” candidate and employee experiences. Throughout his career, he worked in sales for global organizations including CareerBuilder and Gannett. He earned his BA at the University of Pittsburgh.

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