COVID, social unrest prompting ‘real change’ from HR

As president of the National Academy of Human Resources and former CHRO of Accenture, Jill Smart has been working in the HR field for decades and has seen the industry weather its fair share of storms over the years.

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But in light of coronavirus, which upended all sorts of business operations, she has one word to describe HR’s response to the pandemic: amazing.

“There are a lot of changes that happened really fast for HR executives. The way that HR leaders have been so responsive and agile and not necessarily looking at things from a process or program has been impressive,” she says. “The speed at which [changes and decisions were made] was amazing.”

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HR executives have stepped in quickly to help their companies and employees through the COVID pandemic and social unrest, Smart says, and have been a powerful voice for company executives as they navigate complexities that employers never foresaw.

Jill Smart

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HRE recently spoke to Smart about the coronavirus pandemic, social unrest and HR’s changing role due to the current environment.

HRE: We have two huge issues going on simultaneously–COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement. What changes are you seeing in the HR role because of this? 

Smart: What’s been so great about [how HR is reacting to these changes] is that HR leaders are bringing their leadership team along with them on this journey.

A lot of times the first response might be, “What do we need to do for our business?”–not, “What do we need to do for our people?” But because this was about people’s health, HR leaders and their C-suite peers and other business unit leaders genuinely and authentically wanted to make sure they were doing the right thing for their people and for their health.

It wasn’t so much, “Well, if we don’t have our people, we won’t make money.” It really felt genuine, and I think HR played a really key role in influencing that and having them understand that, if they take care of their people, their people take care of the business. I really like the authenticity of the care they were trying to plan for. The health of their people was clearly the No. 1 priority, which quickly transitioned to the mental and emotional health of their employees as well.

HRE: There seems to be more empathy and focus on employees. Does that focus surprise you? A lot of people associate HR with being on the side of the employer.

Smart: I know, historically, HR clearly has had a reputation for doing what management wanted, not what the people want. I think that’s clearly evolved, but you can’t always say you’re representative of the whole spectrum because you can’t always be. It’s like with kids: Sometimes you have to make a really hard decision and it’s better for them. And sometimes employees don’t get that.

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I think what’s important is the communication with your employees and explaining the issues and why the decisions are being made. When you communicate with your employees and your business leaders about the logic of why you’re making the decision you are, they may not like it, but they may understand it and respect it more. And now, because HR has been evolving to have such an important voice, and since it’s something so related to people, it’s so nice to see the leaders of these companies turning to their HR people for their leadership.

HRE: We talk about the proverbial “seat at the table” a lot when it comes to HR leaders. Do you think the current environment is giving HR leaders that seat more often?

Smart: I know we’ve talked about it, but I think they were already there before [COVID-19]. For really good HR leaders, they haven’t just had a seat at the table for years, they had a really prominent key seat. The HR people have the really big business picture because they see what’s happening. Does every HR leader have that key seat at the table? No. But I will say, when you have a CEO who doesn’t expect them to have a seat at the table, they are never going to get there.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

HRE: But for organizations that didn’t rely on that HR voice as much, do you think COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement are going to push that?

Smart: Absolutely yes, assuming that that HR leader is being relentless and courageous. They may be getting pushback–I’m not saying they are, but if they do, they need to be willing to fall on their sword for it.

HRE: You recently said to me that HR needs to be a role model on social justice. How can HR leaders do that?

Smart: In their own organizations, they need to make sure they’re diverse, they’re inclusive, they create a sense of belonging and they have zero tolerance for any racism or social injustice. When I say they need to be willing to fall on their swords, if they’re working in an organization where the leaders don’t get it or don’t want to make it a true priority, there’s a lot of things [HR] can do to try to change that–whether it’s conversations, dialogue or to tell the CEO if there are a few people who don’t get it and aren’t doing the right thing–because they have to be held accountable. And if you go to the CEO and they won’t do anything, and you go to the board and they won’t do anything, you might not be in the right place. And that’s what I mean about never giving up.

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HRE: It seems like a lot of hard lessons are coming fast at HR.

Smart: There are. And because of those hard lessons, there is a real window of opportunity for real change. I’m a bit hopeful. There’s accountability, and that’s one of the most important things [for companies]. Then there’s commitment–like some companies making a commitment to have X percentage of color by this date. And when you go public with that, your shareholders are going to hold you accountable, so you better be able to make that happen.

HRE: Both COVID and social unrest are putting HR in that position to advocate more for employees or for engaging with them more. It sounds like they’re being more empathetic and more personal. Can you speak to that?

Smart: It isn’t so much that HR is having those conversations with employees; it’s HR making sure supervisors and managers are doing that. I think it’s pushing people at all levels. Even if HR is a total employee advocate, if the people that employees are working for every day don’t feel a sense of responsibility for developing their people or taking care of them, no HR policy will matter.

HRE: That’s a great point. So they’re being leaders in how to treat your employees in a way.

Smart: Yes. And I think they’ve been doing that for a while. Maybe people weren’t paying as much attention to that, but they sure are now.

HRE: So maybe that leadership and employee focus has been bubbling up for a while, but this is thrusting it more into a spotlight.

Smart: I completely agree with that. It’s completely catapulted it.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.