Employee Experience

Charting Uncertain Paths

Amid global conflicts and difficult economic times, HR must become a source of support and stability for the entire organisation. 

By Simon Kent

The world is an uncertain place. Pandemics, natural disasters, rising prices, wars, and more can cause employees to feel justifiably anxious or angry. These emotions and issues are as valid and present in the workplace as much as anywhere else. Without the right structures and approaches in place, external events can trigger issues within the business that can impact productivity on one level, and cause disagreement and conflict on another. 

“HR has an important role to play in steering the organisation through hard times,” says Amanda Lennon, HR director and employment lawyer at Astralis HR Solutions Ltd. “Whether due to pressures on the business such as restructuring, or because of external influences on employees such as recent world events. It is crucial that HR teams are keeping their policies and procedures under review so that they can be adapted to changing circumstances.” 

“In these uncertain times, HR steps up as more than just the policymaker,” says Claire Hughes, HR business partner at field service management software company Totalmobile. “We become the heart of reassurance and support for our employees, helping to ease anxiety and provide a sense of stability.” 

This is a hard path to tread, however. World events are rarely straightforward and individuals can find themselves overtaken by events, unsure of what to do when dealing with stressful situations. Hughes cites the pandemic as one example where HR leaders acted as an “anchor” for the organization, offering guidance and support. “Instead of trying to distract employees from the pandemic, we acknowledged the impact it had on individuals within the organisation and their families,” she says. “We found ways to bring people together in meaningful ways, such as through acts of appreciation, like nominating NHS workers or facilitating interactions between employees’ children and company leadership.” 

Hughes says the company is consistently proactive on issues of climate change, another source of anxiety for many. Through effective action and communication, Totalmobile is demonstrating its commitment to the environment and how it is making a difference.  

“When it comes to international issues, HR can contribute to fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace that values different perspectives and backgrounds,” says Hughes. “By championing diversity and inclusion initiatives, we can help create a more tolerant and understanding environment that mirrors the complexities of the international stage and make sure everyone feels respected and supported, no matter where they’re from.” 

Lennon agrees HR should create initiatives which mitigate or at least acknowledge the impact of external events. For her, company culture and the well-being of employees is underpinned by relevant policies. “The company’s grievance and disciplinary procedures also provide a more formal mechanism for resolving workplace disputes where discussion of current affairs breaches company standards such as equality, diversity and respect at work,” she says. Discussion and disagreement among employees is one thing, but it cannot be allowed to cross certain lines. 

However, creating a safe atmosphere at work goes beyond the direct work of HR and can be to do with the makeup of management itself. “Whilst HR implement and maintain the policies and procedures that set company standards, and make support available to employees,” says Lennon, “it is the line manager who should best know the employee day to day, how they are feeling about current affairs and any impact at work.”  

Lennon notes that the best employee engagement survey scores come from teams where employees feel confident they can raise matters with their line manager directly. They also come from situations where there is a track record of their manager addressing and resolving issues in a sensitive way—informally where possible rather than having to resort to the formal procedures. Getting this part of the business right can have more to do with recruitment, selection, and training rather than any well worded policy.  

Bar Huberman, HR strategy and practice manager at HR data specialists Brightmine, agrees it is not HR’s role alone to ensure everyone is treated well. He too looks to the senior leaders and line managers to set the tone and make sure the workplace is free from bullying, harassment, and discrimination. 

“HR’s role is to provide counsel to senior leaders and line managers, ensure that the right policies and procedures are in place, and that there is an effective management training programme so line managers are well placed to protect and support all employees,” Huberman says. “In conjunction with senior managers, HR might consider reiterating policies and guidance around political activity in the workplace, as well as company ethos and values. Where there is evidence of conduct amounting to harassment or discrimination, line managers should work with HR to initiate a formal disciplinary process, while dealing with any complaints via the grievance procedure.” 

For Ursula Priester, senior director HR EMEA at IT services and consulting company Digital Reality, two-way communication is vitally important to enable employees to express themselves in order for organisations to understand what they’re going through. There is a need, she says, for transparent communication and empathy. “HR can facilitate this by organizing regular sessions where employees can express their concerns and feel acknowledged,” she says.  

Such discussions can include the company’s financial health and strategies for navigating current economic challenges putting everyone in the picture as to how the business is faring and offering reassurance for the future. Priester also advocates dedicating time in team calls to address these issues, thereby reinforcing a supportive workplace culture where no one feels alone. “HR can also play an instrumental role in supporting leadership to deliver reassurance and maintain morale, ensuring that leaders are equipped to communicate effectively and empathetically, fostering a resilient and united company environment,” she says. 

Hughes agrees it falls to HR to create the opportunity for this kind of communication: “It’s about creating a safe space where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves, without fear of judgment or backlash,” she says. “At Totalmobile, we believe in education and empathy, giving everyone the tools and training they need to have respectful conversations, even when opinions differ.” Should matters escalate to a disciplinary level, Hughes is adamant that these occurrences are handled with care and fairness, making sure everyone gets a fair opportunity. 

Without a doubt, navigating the world and the world in the workplace has become more problematic over time. And HR can find itself in the middle of such dilemmas, willing to listen and sympathise on one hand, prepared to discipline and limit on the other. As Hughes notes, the trick is also to be able to handle difficult situations without exacerbating them. “It’s essential to provide information that demonstrates the company’s control and leadership without inciting anymore fear,” she says, “and that can be tricky.” 

Tags: company culture, EMEA May June 2024

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