Now's the time for HR to lean in

Faced with the exceptional task of dealing with challenging workforce situations during the COVID-19 pandemic, human resources professionals need each other’s support, insights and best practices more than ever

Now's the time for HR to lean in

As the COVID-19 virus spreads globally, HR representatives have the responsibility of addressing employee questions — an exceptionally challenging job during times of uncertainty. In this role, HR members often struggle to provide clarity about both short- and long-term employee issues, given that the situation is rapidly unfolding.

For many of us, this is our first experience with a pandemic, and we are learning quickly. Given the high volume of work and complexity of tasks we must tackle, we might inadvertently forget to lean into our HR community and network. But now’s the time to take a purposeful pause and remember that we are not alone.

In the last few weeks, we watched government announcements in real time and gathered information about the scope and extent of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we often returned to an avalanche of questions from concerned employees:

“Will I have a job tomorrow? How am I going to pay my bills if you reduce my hours? Why do I have to come to work? How can I prepare for a mandated temporary closure? Do I need to start preparing for a more permanent closure? I am feeling really stressed, where can I go for help? Where do I go for more information?”

These concerns were felt by all of us, yet we were responsible for providing clarity, advice and assurance to employees.

In recent weeks, we explored unique options for unique situations. We provided advice through emails, videos and other resources about the occupational health and safety concerns of employees. We responded to employees who were physically healthy but did not want to come into work. We highlighted the measures that we took to maximize employee safety and clarified worker rights and responsibilities in the workplace. We may have even led or advised on situations where an employee was exposed to COVID-19, demonstrating an abundance of caution in our workplaces.

We lead these initiatives while simultaneously being concerned about our own physical and mental health.

In some workplaces, we started rounds of layoffs. We figured out which jobs were no longer needed as demand for services or products declined. We addressed questions about eligibility for EI and submitted the required governmental paperwork. We provided clarity around how the federally announced economic packages impacted employees and made adjustments as government officials modified packages. We calculated the when and how of severance and reasonable notice periods required for layoffs. 

We answered these questions while also worrying about our own job security.

However, the journey ahead of us is even more difficult. As the situation continues to escalate and evolve, we will be tasked with managing cases of unwell employees, return-to-work programs, layoffs, closures and more.

Sharing best practices
Ultimately, to prevent burnout among the HR professionals community and to provide the best services in our workplaces, we need to lean in more and share best practices.

Personally, I have been invited to regular e-chats with HR professionals in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Often, there is no prescribed agenda for these chats. Instead, we help share best practices and address concerns we have. This was triggered simply by one person emailing her colleagues and a suggested time to chat, with a link to an open Zoom meeting. It’s a great idea to consider starting one of your own regularly scheduled calls with a group of HR professionals you know and trust or join an existing group.

If you have a useful visual for employees to know what options are available to them or how they can manage a specific situation, perhaps consider sharing it on LinkedIn or emailing it to colleagues. Over the last few weeks, free webinars have provided information from multiple perspectives. Let’s continue to embrace that and share information we learn.

If you are not part of an HR community, consider reaching out. Join a local HR group on LinkedIn, reach out to a local group of your provincial HR association, contact alumni from academic programs in HR or email a friend in the industry to ask if they know of a network.  

Consider hosting virtual meetings with colleagues outside of HR. Share your experiences. Talk about their experiences. Learn about how different companies, industries and people are finding solutions in these uncertain times.

Remember, we joined the HR profession to be agents of change, problem-solvers and advocates for employees. We can do this best if we embrace continuous learning and establish best practices as we face an unprecedented situation. So, let’s all take a pause to lean in. Don’t forget, social isolation doesn’t mean professional isolation.


Nita Chhinzer is a member of the Canadian HR Reporter advisory board and an associate professor in HR management and business consulting in the Department of Management at the University of Guelph in Ontario. She can be reached at [email protected]

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