Crisis, Continuity, Contingency and Organizational Communication

HR’s role during a time of uncertainty

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP March 26, 2020
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Matthew Burr

​Uncertainty is all around during the coronavirus pandemic. HR can play a stabilizing role in organizations by mitigating uncertainty as much as possible through sound and ongoing communication, decisive action and strategic leadership. This is no easy feat.

As organizations make decisions and communicate plans, HR can guide and move them forward through crises. Such crises test not only the fabric of society, but how we as organizational leaders respond to the ever-evolving needs of the workplace.

Respond to the crisis by using the SHRM competencies of Communication, Relationship Management, Critical Evaluation and HR Expertise. The most effective responses will encompass every competency in the SHRM competency model. Remember to treat people how you want to be treated.

  • Communication: Keep it going and close the loops. We all want answers to complex questions about action plans, working from home, pay, benefits, etc. Even if you do not have answers to specific questions, address those concerns and communicate that the organization is working on those specifics. Continue to update the workforce as information evolves. Ensure that communication throughout the organization is ongoing and loop-closing. HR has an obligation to eliminate gossip and rumors and to help quell fears.
  • Compassion: Consistent policies and procedures. Reinforce compassion by proactively designing, implementing and communicating policies and procedures to address matters such as remote working, benefit continuation, pay, usage of paid time off, Family and Medical Leave Act, disability, etc. Develop a list of frequently asked questions. It is imperative for the organization to make decisions that are consistent, fair and legal.  
  • Contingency planning: The show must go on. How do we ensure that the organization continues to operate during a time of uncertainty? Many organizations do not have the option to shutter operations or pay employees to not work. As organizational leaders, HR professionals play a significant role in driving strategy and planning for contingencies. Have continuing conversations about contingency planning, as I do as an HR representative consulting with multiple organizations across the country. We need to understand the impact of trials and tribulations on the organization and how best to navigate them. Take the lead. Be prepared to discuss legal impacts. Drive strategic decision-making. Know your organization, workforce, customer, suppliers, volunteers, etc. Understand the domino-effects inside and outside the organization and act accordingly.

As we navigate through this uncertain time, every organization will have successes and failures. Will we be done after the coronavirus is contained? Not even close. It will be another opportunity for HR to take the lead, assessing and reassessing what went well and what needs to improve, and evolving the organizational response. These times will test all of our systems. How we communicate, lead and respond will make all the difference.

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting, LLC, Elmira, N.Y., co-owner of Labor Love, LLC, 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.

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