Coronavirus: An HR challenge like no other

By David D'Souza, Membership Director at the CIPD. 

The past few weeks have seen unprecedented levels of change in our way of life, with the impact on people and organisations being impossible to avoid. The impact has been overwhelming for many - with ways of life and ways of working completely changing in a short time frame. It is true that within every challenge there is an opportunity, but it would be inhuman in the current situation not to recognise how rapidly we have entered a state where so many more people are concerned about health, family and work.  

The people profession is having to make difficult decisions, based on limited, fast moving  information and with significant impacts. Practitioners are making these decisions whilst also juggling the same concerns about family, friends and income security that everyone is having to face. We are hearing from our members about how these decisions weigh on them, how the accountability can make them feel isolated and about the near impossible situations that they are regularly being faced with. There is little time to think, yet there is an overwhelming urgency to act. 

For independent practitioners the challenges around isolation and financial security can be even more pressing. We have already seen negative press about the way that some  HR teams have, no doubt, poorly executed some decisions, yet I have sympathy for those teams as well as the people impacted. Most HR practitioners reading this will have had to deliver bad news to someone about their employment. The need to do that at pace and at volume is an incredibly tough burden to carry, even before someone has shamed you and shared your name across social media channels. It seems a month ago people were urging others to #BeKind and suddenly the pressure is bringing out a need for people to point at each other and find a target for their anger. This is a hard time to get everything right.

So there are two key things I’d like to convey here.  

The first is that we would like to urge all of our members to remember that your legal obligations and your professional obligations are different things. It’s a given that we should always act according to employment law– but we must also act  with compassion, understanding and affording people dignity. I was taught early in my career to assess facts coldly, but to treat people warmly. It seems that advice might be more pertinent than ever. We recognise as a professional body that not every organisation will be able to survive some of the economic conditions or will have to make difficult calls that impact people along the way. That isn’t the test of our profession – the test is how we deal with people in those situations and how we communicate with and support them. We will keep adding advice and guidance, but it is up to you to deliver in the best way for your context and your people, now and thinking further ahead.   

The second is that we are working hard to support you and that you should also take support from your professional community. Whether you are working within an organisation or as an independent practitioner there has never been more value to your network – whether it is for job opportunities, learning opportunities, to sense check interpretation or just support at this difficult time. It is important that we remember that social distancing is about the physical distance, we have the ability to use technology and creativity to be closer to people in more ways than ever before. Whether you are an HRD of a multinational or a student just entering the profession we are stronger together and we are all learning new things – about work and about ourselves. It is a bad time to be alone and a good time to be making new connections. Make use of our community and make use of the overall professional community. One of the heartening things about recent events is that it is certainly bringing out the best in people – I have seen generous sharing of materials, expertise, time and perspectives. All valued by people in different ways.  

It might be impossible for an individual to keep up with the overwhelming complexity and nature of events – yet it is possible for us to come together as a community to do the best we can for people and organisations in truly difficult circumstances.  

If these are some of the worst of times, then they are some of the best of times to support each other.  

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