By Elliot H. Clark
Harry Truman famously said the day after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, “When they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” I am reminded of this quote now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust many HR executives into a new leadership role suddenly and in a way for which no one could prepare. In most companies, the day after the declaration of national emergency, the CHRO became the most critical executive on the CEO’s team.
Since then, HR has managed the global conversion to remote work for non-essential jobs, developed protocols for essential jobs, overseen massive reductions in force or furloughs, and helped counsel and grieve for lost employees or their families. I am sure many of you agree that celebrating New Year’s Eve and ringing in 2020 seems like a distant memory—something that happened a decade ago when the world was naïve of the waiting challenge that was already lurking unseen in the throngs of celebrators.
And now, once again, HR will have to take point on a new set of challenges when safely reopening the workplaces that were shuttered almost three months ago. In the backdrop, there are fundamental differences in guidance being given at the federal and state levels here in the United States, and some municipalities are even refusing to honor either set of guidelines, instead insisting that mayors or city councils should determine the policies. Large corporations are dealing with a patchwork of guidance that they need to respect or face the unwelcome regulatory scrutiny of being second-guessed.
There are also some important considerations for companies. For example, is wearing a mask an act of personal expression? Some are arguing that the government cannot mandate mask wearing, social distancing, or anything of the sort. There are always extremes on either side of the argument, and elected officials should take the debate among constituents to heart.
With that being said, it is within the rights of employers to prescribe health and safety protocols based on company policy. HR can tune out the extremes of civil discourse and mandate social distancing, mask wearing, the use of anti-microbial products, temperature taking, and the like—regardless of their local jurisdiction’s philosophy or stated guidance. It will fall to HR to work closely with legal and health and safety functionaries in operating management teams to establish those guidelines and decide when they should be relaxed or tightened. There are OSHA-reporting regulations for which you need to consult your legal counsel, but much of what I have described can be the prerogative of the employer.
In addition, there are stark warnings of the emergence of plaintiff law firms soliciting COVID-19 class action lawsuits against already opened companies and health systems. I am not just suggesting the chance of these kinds of litigation, but the absolute likelihood that this will become its own legal cottage industry in the second half of 2020. The coherency of policy and its uniform application will be paramount, and that will also be an additional burden on HR.
We have a lot of great content in this issue of HRO Today about how companies can bring workers back to the office: staggering shifts, rethinking seating charts, and all of the myriad considerations that form the foundation of creating a safe work environment when the economy begins to function again. It has been gratifying to see the prominence of HR during crisis, but saddening that so much misery and pain has been suffered in the past 90 days. Our team at HRO Today salutes the HR community for its effort and wishes all of you and your workforces a safe and healthy return to what, for now, will be the new normal.