Viewpoint: Getting Through the Government Shutdown

During the government shutdown, we need to treat employees as we want to be treated

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP January 23, 2019
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​Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP

​Early in my career, I worked for a small manufacturing plant in upstate New York with about 420 employees. It lost $20 million in a single year. The facility was part of a major corporation with over 90,000 employees globally, and the mandate from corporate leaders was immediate and decisive: The loss was unacceptable, they demanded furloughs and layoffs of more than 70 employees, and those needed to happen quickly.

This was one of my first jobs in HR, and I had never done anything like this. The experience remains among the most challenging of my career. Making decisions as an organization about who would stay and who would go was not easy, and it resulted in sleepless nights and anxiety for many of us. The decisions were even harder to communicate to the 70 employees and the many other workers affected. Furloughs and layoffs aren't just numbers on a balance sheet; they affect employees, their co-workers, families and communities. 

We are now in the midst of the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, and it is having an impact on more than just furloughed employees. It is also affecting friends, families and communities. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, or think the shutdown is right or wrong, we as HR professionals and leaders need to reflect on how to limit its impact. 

Here are some ways HR professionals working for the federal government and contractors can address the concerns of a furloughed or laid-off workforce: 

Clarify unemployment insurance. Direct furloughed employees to their state unemployment agency. Know your state's laws regarding unemployment insurance; they vary throughout the country. Utilize your proficiencies in Consultation and Communication as defined in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (BoCK) to consider and answer employees' questions (e.g., retroactive pay and working without pay).

Clarify employee benefits. The online Federal News Network reported that "coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) will continue during the government shutdown. Enrollment in FEHBP continues for up to one year in non-pay status." (Let's assume the shutdown won't last a year!) HR professionals might be responsible for explaining health care benefit end dates and COBRA options in similar layoff or furlough situations. Understanding Total Rewards, Risk Management and U.S. Employment Laws & Regulations—functional areas outlined in the HR Expertise component of the BoCK—is necessary for leading an organization through the process.

Explore other employment options. Federal employees must follow Executive Branch standards of ethical conduct and a variety of rules governing outside employment, for which prior approval may be necessary. Know the rules. Answer employees' questions with a "yes" or "no"; don't leave them in limbo without a decision about an opportunity they can seize while furloughed. The matter is often easier to handle in the private sector than in the public sector. To efficiently address employees' questions, HR professionals require competence in Communication, Relationship Management, Consultation and Business Acumen.

Look into employee assistance and financial wellness programs. If employee assistance programs or financial wellness programs are offered within a specific government agency, HR professionals need to ensure that furloughed employees know about these resources and utilize them as far as policies allow. Track the programs' usage rates by applying your Critical Evaluation skills; metrics matter. Stress financial wellness in your workplace. Budgeting, prioritizing payments and general decision-making about finances can be burdensome to families; without a paycheck or unemployment insurance, these decisions can be overwhelming. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is a critical competency that cannot be stressed enough in these situations, as I learned from my experience handling layoffs and furloughs. We read or listen to the news and get different opinions about the shutdown and when it could end. But official communications should come from department heads, HR professionals and other leaders. Communication should also be ongoing and open. If you do not know an answer, follow up later with the person who asked the question. Close the communication loop. The worst thing is to say, "I'll look into it" and not do so. 

In any organization that experiences furloughs or layoffs, as in other times of crisis, HR professionals will be asked to use many of the competencies in the SHRM BoCK. The process will never be easy, but we can exercise leadership and ethics to help employees navigate stressful situations. Timely, open communication of information is vitally important to ensure we treat employees the right way. Treat them the way you want to be treated. It's that simple. 

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC in Elmira, N.Y., is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources and industrial relations, as well as a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.

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