Experts share programs–such as employee resource groups–that HR can use to communicate and support workers impacted by global events or social changes.
By Zee Johnson
As personal and professional lives continue to blend, it’s no surprise that today’s employees expect their organizations to support them through taxing social issues. Earlier this year, Russia invaded Ukraine, inciting a war that has left more than 3,000 people dead and more than 9 million displaced–and these numbers are only rising. The recent Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling left employees wondering how organizations will adjust their benefits policies. It goes without saying that those directly impacted by these events and other global or social events will need HR leaders who they can communicate and confide in as they work through any resulting fear, pressure, and grief.
ManpowerGroup is one such company that understands this. Becky Frankiewicz, chief commercial officer and president of North America, says the company took immediate action to be at the forefront of Ukrainian refugee support and relief efforts. “From the start, ManpowerGroup has stood with Ukraine, with Ukrainian people everywhere, and for peace. Our teams on the ground, in neighboring countries, and across the world have been providing extraordinary support through donations to aid humanitarian relief efforts, volunteering, and job support.”
In fact, the international workforce solutions provider has donated more than half a million dollars toward relief efforts, along with relief items for affected families. They’ve also helped integrate refugees into their new societies through collaborations with the Tent Partnership Refugees and the UNHCR, the latter of which has been helping to upskill and reskill Ukrainian workers.
But that’s not all. They leaned on a program they already had in place in order to make the biggest and most effective impact–the fastest.
“We have a global program called MyPath that was already set up in 14 markets before the invasion of Ukraine and that helps workers upskill in micro amounts for better employment opportunities,” Frankiewicz says. “The Ukraine crisis allowed us to adapt it quickly to include language training–one of the biggest barriers for Ukrainian people in finding work. Today, 37 companies are engaged in MyPath. We are also working with clients to review hiring requirements to fill vacancies and open job opportunities and adapt roles–especially for women who make up a high proportion of the refugees.”
Other socially impactful events, like the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned the federal legalization of abortions, have given HR a greater responsibility in terms of how they communicate and support effected employees. Such significant shifts in the legal landscape of the United States leaves room for many questions, ones that Jennifer Rubin, an attorney at Mintz, says leaders should be asking themselves to determine how to proceed.
“How does this ruling impact an employer’s workplace? How do you manage internal messaging about the ruling? This issue has created a lot of anxiety for a lot of individuals, and how does an employer provide support for employees who are undergoing mental health challenges as a result?” Rubin questions. “There are a lot of impacts that this ruling has on the workplace, and employers are going to have to be thoughtful about how they adjust their policies to address these impacts.”
Some organizations are on the path to addressing these concerns. Recent research from Embroker’s new report, Risk, Reputation and Reproductive Rights, found that 31% of startup founders plan on increasing benefits and care options for employees and 53% intend to hire in states in which abortion rights are not upheld, but plan to extend benefits to employees so have they access to reproductive health benefits regardless of where they live.
Even with large-scale issues affecting the lives and livelihoods of workers globally, some companies are choosing to stay silent–at least publicly. A recent Conference Board survey found that just 10% of companies made a public response following the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. Most research shows major corporations rarely comment on socially sensitive topics.
Kelly Cruse, vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer at Atlas World Group, says that companies that remain silent are actually making their stance loud and clear. “Ignoring social issues technically is taking a position. Companies need to determine how social issues connect with company values and the company should act in a way that is responsible and ethical,” she says. “Companies must think about both employees and customers and how social issues impact them.”
The same Conference Board survey does show that organizations are at least communicating about these societal issues internally. The majority of respondents (51%) either have internally addressed or plan to address women’s reproductive rights. What are they addressing? Forty-two percent of respondents are outlining health benefits and 30% are discussing travel expenses for employees to obtain an abortion outside their state of residence.
Being an Empathetic Leader
Connecting with employees on the challenges they’re facing on and off the clock requires HR to be more empathetic than even before. In fact, the recently released Humankindex study from Signature Consultants found that 83% of workers agree with the statement, “kind leadership is more important to me than ever when choosing an employer/job.” And the C-suite agrees: seven out of 10 executives reports that kind leadership is critical to recruiting and retaining talent. Sinch’s People and Culture Director, Enterprise and Messaging, Todd Pouwels, thinks an empathy-driven approach is now the norm and is one key to creating a positive and communicative environment.
“Empathy is certainly part of the solution to generate a trusting and compassionate relationship with employees across the organization, especially during these unprecedented, stressful, and tough times,” he says. “Empathy really helps us connect to one another, as it requires each of us to consider the perspective of others and walk in their shoes. It’s critically important, and a supportive win-win for everybody, both personally and professionally.”
And though many HR departments have operated on an all-work, no-play motto for quite some time, Cruse thinks empathy has always been present, it just took major events to bring it forward. “The most successful HR professionals have always been empathetic. If we don’t consider our people and try to understand why they choose to work for us, we are missing the mark,” she says. “Historically, HR was more focused on policies and ‘policing,’ but over time, successful HR professionals have shifted their focus. Ultimately, we are here to deliver business results and we can’t lose sight of that, but we can’t do that if we aren’t meeting employees’ needs.”
Along with empathy, comes intention. After connecting with and understanding an employee’s concerns, leaders should then be deliberate in their efforts, as new initiatives will ultimately shape their culture and brand, affecting everyone, not just those experiencing the brunt of the trauma.
“While properly addressing social issues can be a priority for HR teams, company goals related to social issues should reach across the entire company,” Cruse says. “As part of the leadership of an organization, HR should actively seek to understand current social issues and ensure that the company considers how they can support, drive change and impact issues.”
With this approach, employee resource groups (ERGs) can help. According to The Conference Board’s report, organizations should have a process that allows employees to raise issues with established criteria to address those concerns. The survey finds that some companies lean on ERGs to deliver regular feedback to management. In fact, 55% of respondents say ERGs put on pressure and encourage organizations to respond to societal issues.
Mary Rusterholz, chief people officer at Constant Contact, says resource groups have become an avenue for employees to feel empowered and a great source of feedback for leaders to curate change. “Affinity groups are a great way to encourage ongoing discussions about topics your employees are passionate about,” she explains. “We have more than 10 affinity groups at Constant Contact, and I’m amazed at the conversations happening there every day–not about work, but about everything from the war in Ukraine to Pride Month and women’s rights.”
With a myriad of issues weighing heavily on the global workforce, it’s also imperative for HR teams to have a tried-and-true process that can get their employees through almost any event. To start, Pouwels recommends training frontline managers as well as leaders on strategies on leading employees through change. By understanding what signs to look for, leaders will help employees transition and stay focused. Managers should be empowered to create a safe space for employees to express their minds about what makes them anxious and share ways they can be supported. It’s also critical to communicate frequently and as transparently as possible.
“Active listening and empathy can really foster the psychological safety and trust between employees and their managers,” he says. “Leading through challenging times requires forums where people can talk. Create safe spaces where people can come together within the organization.”
Driving Values Through Company Culture
By building a company culture, employee value proposition and brand based on trust, empathy, and communication, organizations will be able to strengthen their employer-employee relationships to endure what’s next.
“During challenging times, you lean into your company values and personal values, and you’ve got to know them before the crisis strikes,” Frankiewicz says. “When crisis strikes, and there is no playbook, you fall back onto who is the heart of the company. But what is at the heart of the company, and what are your personal values? That’s how you lead and how you make the best decisions that you can.”
It is HR’s responsibility to ensure a company’s core values show up throughout daily processes. And when embedded correctly, employees can be certain they are working where their concerns are acknowledged and valued.
“We need to listen to our employees and have a voice in social issues that matter to them, which is important to maintaining a supportive and robust culture. For instance, the war in Ukraine is a clear example of an opportunity to emphasize the human element of HR management,” Pouwels says. “We support our employees, their heritage, and the communities in which they live. Employees want to work for organizations that take steps to build a better society.”