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HR’s role in a crisis

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May 19, 2020
By Todd Humber

Photo: Light Field Studios/Getty Images

No one alive has experienced a global crisis like the Coronavirus and its unprecedented impact on personal and professional lives. Personal and family health will always have priority. We all mourn with those that mourn and we take care of our loved ones.

However, with a global time out — caused by travel restrictions, social distancing, closed restaurants and stores, and looming recession — business implications are also profound. Personal well being is often shaped by the organizations where we live and work. Many industries (e.g., travel, entertainment, consumer goods, advisory services) are more directly affected, but all organizations have to adapt to this crisis.

In the face of dramatic contextual jolts, HR deliverables of talent, leadership, and organization become even more pivotal. For talent (workforce, employees, people), HR provides psychological safety in the face of uncertainty, positive and empathic work experiences, and increased employee sentiment through believe (meaning and purpose), become (learn and grow) and belong (sense of community). HR helps leaders make bold decisions instill confidence with all stakeholders, and model behaviors that employees should follow. HR also helps organizations enact and live espoused values, institutionalize the “right” culture, and reinvent business models to create the future.

HR’s role in a crisis is ever more critical because the stress of a crisis magnifies actions and creates lingering memories.


Recently, many thoughtful posts offer helpful tactical tips for delivering essential services (how to work remotely, manage personal health, and so forth). In addition to these helpful tips, HR plays a critical strategic role in coping with disruption.

In our research and experience, we found that HR’s greatest contribution to business and personal success comes from navigating paradox. Paradox means continually balancing two extremes, not merely managing to one agenda. Let me suggest how to navigate three of the most demanding paradoxes that arise in this crisis. By navigating these (and other) paradoxes, HR professionals help business leaders and employees react in the short term and remain for the long term.

Care for the Individual and Attend to the Organization. 

Employees are the heart of any organization and HR’s legacy and future is to be caregivers to all employees. But, at the same time, HR must attend to the organization setting to ensure the right culture and capabilities, to be an organization architect. Navigating individual needs with organization requirements balances what is right for both the employee and the organization. When employee decisions are made or actions taken, HR should ensure that those employee actions reflect organization values. In the middle of this crisis, an executive team asked themselves, “What do we want to be known for by all of our stakeholders as we respond to the present crisis?” They listed some marvelous identifiers (e.g., caring, empathy, nurturing). Then they were asked to review their organization’s core values that they had spent much time crafting. They found that their quick top of mind identifiers did not fully capture all the values they espoused (e.g., innovation, collaboration, accountability), so they tweaked their desired identifiers to more align with their espoused values. They recognized the importance of caring for employees while simultaneously attending to their organization’s values.

Do Triage Now and Plan for What’s Next

Triage requires reacting urgently and boldly to sudden, often unexpected, events (close a business, work from home, employee illness, cost-cutting). With inevitable triage, HR can help make sure that what has to get done gets done. At the same time, HR should continually plan for what’s next by envisioning a future and folding today’s decisions into tomorrow’s aspirations. HR enables planful triage by constantly showing how actions today will be interpreted in the future and by turning future visions and strategies into daily actions. At a university where students were suddenly prohibited from attending class and faculty had to learn to deliver online courses, a number of triage actions occurred (e.g., training faculty to do online courses, changing building hours, upgrading technology), but at the same time, the university commitment to “student success” was always the overriding criterion for actions taken. In organizations “student” and be replaced by “customer and investor” success. HR helps ensure that triage actions now will create a workplace that succeeds in the marketplace.

Make Decisions Alone and Enable Others to Become Decision Makers

In a crisis, how decisions are made often reflects underlying values. As an analogue, we often swear in our native language. One leader recently implied: This is a crisis, I will be in charge, make decisions, then broadcast decisions to others. He is right and wrong. Navigating between a command and control versus coach and collaborate decision model does not have to be either/or. Navigating top/down and bottom/up decision making may be done by simply asking others “What do you think?” In one case, a company had to cut quickly cut 20% of labor costs to stay financially viable. The leader laid out two alternative options: [1] reduce headcount 20% or [2] everyone take a 20% reduction in pay for a period. Instead of just deciding, she asked others which of these two options they would select. Taking others’ responses into account, she then made the decision. Others felt heard (participative management) even if their desired solution was not adopted. HR can also help clarify decision processes: what is the decision to be made? who will make it? when will it be made? and who will be accountable to follow through By clarifying decision processes, HR ensure decisions that enable others.

Many other paradoxes become even more pivotal in the midst of a crisis, including:

  • Reducing cost AND creating revenue growth
  • Delivering profit AND acting with purpose
  • Using quantitative statistics and rigorous analytics AND relying on qualitative insights and thoughtful observations
  • Being resilient to overcome failure AND celebrating success to create hope
  • Learning from the past AND creating the future
  • Recognizing complexity AND delivering simplicity
  • Building technology and digital systems AND trusting people-centric solutions
  • Serving customers outside AND caring for employees inside
  • Encouraging divergence (valuing diversity and differences) AND forging convergence (focusing on inclusion and unity)
  • Add your own

In a crisis, it is tempting to “manage” (do one or the other) rather than “navigate” (do both simultaneously) these paradoxes. Of course, HR should continue to provide “tip-sheets” for essential services. But in this (and other) crisis, HR adds even more value by delving into the challenges of navigating these paradoxes. By so doing, HR helps business leaders deliver talent, organization, and leadership so that all stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, communities) live beyond today’s crisis. I am enormously confident that HR professionals will live up to these opportunities.

At The RBL Group, we are poised to help you deliver value by recognizing and navigating these paradoxes (www.rbl.net). Let us know if we can help.

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.

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