Practice Makes Proficient: This Crisis Is Developing Our Competencies

The time and energy HR pros are expending during the pandemic is developmental

By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP April 23, 2020
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Phyllis Hartman

I hope by the time you read this there will have been some leveling of the spread of the novel coronavirus. It will likely take a long time before life and business are back to some kind of normal. Thinking back on other dark times in my life, I realize that no matter how difficult things were, surviving them helped me grow.

That realization, in turn, makes me recognize that our practice of good HR during this time has the potential to develop our professional competencies.

For example, I've been helping my small-business and nonprofit clients sort out the various new laws and regulations enacted because of the pandemic. I'm not an attorney, but in my role as an HR consultant, I find myself working with legal counsel and translating the information they provide into language my clients can understand and use. If you are an HR practitioner inside an organization, you are likely doing the same kinds of things.

This activity is helping me develop the SHRM behavioral competencies of Communication and Consultation. In addition, I'm learning more about past and current U.S. Employment Law & Regulations, a functional area within the HR Expertise technical competency.

Since dealing with COVID-19 is all about people, the importance of HR is front and center—and so are all of the HR competencies and functional areas.

We are developing our competency in Business Acumen as we work with other organizational leaders. A solid understanding of the business itself is required to decide, for example, whether an operation can continue with state-issued isolation orders. One of my clients, faced with a shutdown order, reviewed its customer list and realized that a customer manufactured ventilators. We worked together to determine how the client could apply for an exemption from the order.

The C-suite is looking to HR more and more for answers. This renewed focus on the importance of HR gives us the opportunity to develop our competency in Leadership & Navigation.

As we are tasked with making decisions on layoffs and furloughs, we are developing our competency in Critical Evaluation—using data to decide which positions are critical to the survival of the business and which positions it can do without for a while. I know of one company that determined if it laid off a group of electricians, they might find other jobs, and the organization would lose those impacted employees when things picked up. HR worked with management to find ways to keep paying them.

While all of the functional areas of HR Expertise will likely come into play as we navigate these uncharted waters, some are obvious, especially in industries deemed essential. Risk Management is involved when determining appropriate social distancing, providing personal protective equipment and sanitizing to protect employees.

As more remote workers use various platforms to communicate and do their jobs, we are developing our competency in Technology Management. HR is likely partnering with IT to develop and communicate user policies that safeguard the technology of the organization.

We are developing our competency in Learning & Development as the pandemic continues its impact on business. Some of my nonprofit clients are building for their employees new skills in fundraising, which they will need going forward as sources of funding dry up.

As we work to help organizational leaders maintain trust with employees, board members and the community, we are developing our competency in Ethical Practice. One situation I know of involved a shutdown order. A manufacturer applied for an exemption and, as it waited several days for an answer, found out that some industry peers were defying the order, operating before getting the green light. The company's HR professional and CEO discussed the situation and decided it was more important for their employees to see the organization as ethical than to do like the others and break the law. They closed the plant and found enough money to pay the employees while waiting for the exemption to come through.

During this global pandemic, our proficiency in Global & Cultural Effectiveness—HR in the global context—is also developing, as we help employees deal with COVID-19 and recognize biases (such as those relating to illness or national origin). If our organizations have facilities in other countries, we have to remain sensitive to cultural differences while dealing with these issues.

Probably the most practiced competency during a crisis is Relationship Management. HR professionals are often the balance between the organization and the employees. We need to work constantly and effectively to be the glue that helps hold them together.

My hope is that you find time to reflect on what you are learning during these difficult days—if not now, then later as you assess your personal and professional growth.

Stay safe and well.

Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession, including A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017).

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