How COVID and other disasters showed this leader HR’s purpose

Michael Monahan hopes that the figure of speech “All things come in threes”—and not four or more—is true.

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Since 2001, he and his work have been directly impacted by three major disasters, both natural and manmade. Monahan has led HR in organizations that were disrupted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (he was also flooded out of his home) and now the pandemic.

“Each of those experiences has taught me about the importance of how you care for [employees] during those moments,” he says. “What you do and how intentional you are during those significant moments of such pain and suffering is essential to not just your business but what you say you are as an organization.”

Now the national managing principal for people and community at Grant Thornton, a global professional services firm, Monahan recently shared with HRE how these crises not only shaped his HR career but also changed how he and his HR team help people—before, during and after a crisis.

HRE: What’s the key lesson this pandemic has taught you?

Michael Monahan

Monahan: The depth and duration of the social isolation that we as a society have endured as a result of the pandemic have really challenged HR professionals to be effective. I’ve learned that HR is very much about being intentional with taking care of people and [you have] to do and think about what it is you’re going to do to take care of another human being in the moment and experience you’re having.

HRE: How is your HR team being intentional about caring for Grant Thornton employees?

Monahan: We met with executives and local teams over a series of months. We asked them: What do you need now? What would help you the most now? What would best benefit you? We did this group by group and kept building our list. We introduced backup or emergency childcare, elder and other dependent care; pet care; meal preparation support; and online tutoring services–all subsidized.

HRE: After experiencing these disasters, what skills have you developed or strengthened?

Monahan: One specific skill I mastered as an HR professional is the willingness to change. It goes beyond flexibility. It’s the understanding that change is inevitable and HR professionals need to be prepared and prepare our businesses and people for change. We need to be willing to change ourselves as well as recognize that the business, the economy, the social stratosphere we live in; these things are constantly evolving and changing. I am willing to transform myself just as I know the business needs to transform.

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HRE: How is HR transforming? What will be expected of those entering the profession?

Monahan: People need to hone and deepen their understanding of the businesses they support–how they generate revenue, how they’re successful, what that equates to in terms of profitability and productivity–and find the synergy between what we do as HR professionals and what they do as a business. The most successful HR professionals are the ones who master that equation, who figure out that what they do helps them be more productive because of this, this and that.

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HRE: Looking ahead, is managing remote employees HR’s next biggest challenge?

Monahan: We need to be more comfortable in operating effectively in a remote environment. As more people return to the office and we continue to support building human interactions and networks, we also need to do so in a remote and virtual environment. It won’t be all that long before we’re figuring out how to support people by being more connected as human beings. We’ll continue to move back and forth and be effective in both environments.

HRE: What’s your future focus?

Monahan: Succession planning is definitely on my horizon. I spend a lot of time meeting one on one with just about all members of my team. I meet with them for 15 minutes here and there, call people at night or check on them over the weekends. We talk about family, not work. Succession planning for me is making sure that that philosophy and passion for taking care of people isn’t a passing fad but human commitment.

HRE: You also serve as a deacon in your local church. How has your faith influenced your career?

Monahan: My faith has taught me the importance of being willing to sit with people at the hardest times and to be there for them at all times. We need to be willing to enter into the suffering of other human beings or meet them where they’re at. We can’t just give them things that we think are best for them. My faith has taught me the importance of opening ourselves up to the suffering of others in order to help them and recognize that that has a toll on us as HR professionals. Living, breathing and connecting with human beings at these moments can challenge us. There’s a purpose behind the role we play in being able to engage with people at some of the hardest times.

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at