Keeping Up with Professional Development During the Pandemic

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Many employees need to accumulate credits to keep their professional credentials, and they may look forward to large gatherings with their peers each year where they can learn about the latest developments in their industry. But the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way employees and businesses are approaching professional development, with many opting—at least for now—for online learning.

"We've seen a large shift in the manner in which these things are being done," said Melissa Peters, an attorney with Littler in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Since March 31, the U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to COVID-19. Within the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had urged residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to temporarily halt nonessential domestic travel and asked people everywhere in the country to carefully consider the risks before traveling.

"Some employers are going further and recommending that employees cancel or postpone all nonessential travel," observed Douglas Brayley, an attorney with Ropes & Gray in Boston.

The White House and many state and local governments have either recommended or required people to practice social distancing through April and even beyond—which is causing some business and professional associations to find creative alternatives to their in-person meetings.


SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Going Virtual

A webinar or videoconference may be a good alternative to an in-person meeting, Brayley said.

Elizabeth Wylie, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Denver, noted, "Many companies are bolstering their remote conferencing access to ensure it is adequate to meet the anticipated increase in needs in the coming weeks."

Kathleen Sullivan, chief human resources officer at law firm Clark Hill in Pittsburgh, said her firm is using webinars, videoconferencing and phone conferencing technologies. "Our goal is to continue to provide excellent client service while we ensure we are taking care of our employees," she said.

In response to limits on travel and social gatherings, some licensing bodies have eased up on their e-learning limits. For instance, the Indiana Supreme Court and other state high courts have temporarily waived distance-learning limitations for attorneys seeking continuing education credits.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has transformed its 2020 Talent Conference & Exposition to a virtual experience so attendees can stay current and earn professional development credits without leaving their homes.  

"We've been working with public health officials and collaborating with the conference venue and vendors to make an informed decision based on the latest science, local public health guidance, and our ability to provide the HR community with the best event and professional development experience you've come to expect from SHRM, in a safe environment," SHRM said on its website.

Should Employers Reimburse Nonrefundable Expenses?

"There is not a uniform practice in terms of [employers] reimbursing for canceled or postponed trips," said Mark Keenan, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Atlanta. He said organizations need to make such decisions based on:

  • The health and welfare of their employees.
  • Whether such trips can be rescheduled or postponed with limited incidental additional expense.

"However," Keenan said, "most organizations would still reimburse such trips as an appropriate business expense, and therefore should reimburse nonrefundable costs as they would with any other itinerary change."

If the employer paid for the professional development and travel in the first place, any cancellation costs would generally be absorbed by the employer, said Susan Kline, an attorney with Faegre Drinker in Indianapolis. "If it's something the employee signed up for as a personal matter for a weekend or vacation, employers might treat it like any other vacation."

She noted that some states, such as California, require employers to reimburse reasonable business expenses.

Peters said employers are making difficult business decisions as they struggle with the economic impact of COVID-19. "There are legal aspects, but whether or not you want to reimburse people for professional development should be aligned with the company's philosophy and business needs."

The best practice for each business is highly dependent upon its business needs, industry and workforce, Wylie said, and is subject to change as the recommendations of public health agencies evolve.

Stay Updated

"The employer community seems to be very proactive in communicating updates on the coronavirus and the impact on their workforces," Keenan observed. For now, he said, the best practices are to not panic and to monitor the CDC's website.

"The situation is evolving rapidly," Sullivan said. "It is important to stay up-to-date with the current information."

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