A crisis is a terrible thing to waste

The pandemic is accelerating the change, innovation and disruption that have long been in the works for HR. This is our moment.
By: | April 16, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

What if COVID-19 is one of the most important things to ever happen to HR? What if it is a massive catalyst for the transformation of how talent is managed, in ways that HR has long advocated for but never been able to advance? My friends, this is our moment.

The coronavirus crisis has elevated the HR function and its cohorts to unprecedented levels of visibility, importance and influence. Overnight, we’ve become the go-to group to figure things out, handle the endless complexity that involves all things people and to consider the psyche of the organization. Around the globe, my colleagues in HR are helping to execute the largest work-from-home experiment ever. HR is handling infected employees and their loved ones, rapidly changing laws, layoffs, compensation changes and a massively elevated concern for employee wellbeing. If our function were a stock, it would be rated a “Buy” right now. My friends, this is our moment.

Read all of HRE‘s coronavirus coverage here.

Ben Brooks

When I first got involved with HR professionally circa 2009, I was floored to hear from many co-workers at Marsh & McLennan Cos. that we were fighting for a “seat at the table.” Really? Then they educated me on the long evolution of what we now think of as HR, or increasingly People & Culture at more progressive firms. Traditionally, HR had two jobs: control cost and reduce risk—both of which it has done quite well. But what seemed to be missed is what I often call “the upside of HR”: the future-focused, innovative, performance-driving, strategic, tech-driven side of HR that, while ripe with potential, has seen a snail’s pace of progress since I’ve been paying attention to HR.

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In so many ways, HR professionals haven’t been set up to succeed in this progressive aspect of HR. Other organizational leaders resist changes to the status quo, budgets are often meager and quick to be frozen or cut, and the function has a lackluster brand when it comes to being change agents. But the most inspiring, more believable, most amazing people I know in HR are those who cut through these headwinds and find a way to elevate the employee experience for everyone.

So here we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and I think to myself, “Is this the best thing that has ever happened to HR?” And to be clear, I am not being flippant about the risks and impact of this terrible situation. I write this from my apartment in Manhattan, the epicenter of the (current) crisis where the number of deaths continues to climb. I have had a client hospitalized for the virus and dozens of friends ill at home. I disinfect my groceries when I bring them home and fret about the liquidity of the start-up I founded with my life’s savings. But as I study adversity and mindset for overcoming obstacles, I keep thinking that the field of human resources has never been better positioned or had more leverage. So remember, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

What’s happening in countless ways is that this pandemic is acting as an accelerant to change, innovation and disruption that were all long in the works but slowed by the main restraining forces that protect the status quo. Don’t believe me? Zoom meetings, work from home, increased flexibility, expanded sick leave, rethinking our definition of “essential” work and concern for employee wellness have been more conceptual than reality, and in just 30-plus days, we’ve made more progress than we have in the last decade.

What do you do, in your HR role, to not waste a crisis?

Remember, unlike 10-20 years ago, you’re not fighting for a seat at the table. You’re leading the goddamn meeting. You’re the field marshal. Your colleagues in other functions are eagerly waiting to be directed, to be inspired, to be led. All the things that you’ve observed, learned and advocated for in the past are becoming painfully obvious to your co-workers as you read this. Seize the moment!

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What does this look like? Moving from “order taker” to a far more commanding presence in board, executive and management meetings. Advocating for ways your employer can do the right thing, enhance competitiveness and future-proof performance. This will require you to take more risk, be bold, overcome objections, make strategic plans and deliver on promises in a way that HR never has. But I’m confident we can do it!

Remember that people’s memories are uniquely sensitive at peak moments (getting married, having a child, promotion, big speaking gig) and tough ones (laid off, heartbreak, illness). How we show up as a function, and equally important, how we show up as individuals, both internally and externally, right now will be remembered for a long time.

Since the genesis of personnel or labor relations, there has never been a better time to rapidly advance the important transformations in all aspects of work. The future of work is now, and if you step up and lead, you’ll open up career opportunities, build an incredible reputation and make a truly lasting impact in the lives of the humans we resource. Get to work.

By the way, I’ll be back regularly, sharing more career advice and thoughts on how we can be better HR professionals. If you have suggestions for future columns, please contact me on LinkedIn!

Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.