How HR is becoming the heart of the organization

What a triple threat of crises—COVID-19, diversity and economic challenges—means to HR professionals.
By: | August 10, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

This is the first in a four-part series on the changing role of HR leaders.

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When COVID-19 first surfaced in January, Jo Deal, chief human resources officer of software company LogMeIn, began meeting daily with the company’s CEO and general counsel about the situation. Their original questions were logistical and scenario-based: Do we let people travel? What happens for employees returning from a conference?

Things quickly progressed as the number of cases rose and the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic in March. When that happened, Deal started meeting with the CEO and general counsel about the looming crisis three to four times daily.

Jo Deal

“Things were moving so quickly at that point,” she says. “We’re still meeting daily now, however many months later.”

Though early conversations revolved around the logistical—which employees would work from home and how to best move workers remote, for instance—questions quickly evolved into more personal matters: How do we help employees? How are they feeling? What can we do?

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“We talked a lot about flexibility and empathy and working with our leaders on giving them training to try to meet people where they are,” Deal says. “And, really, every day, just survive.”

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, human resource leaders have been a clear, resounding voice for their companies. They are important partners for C-suite executives, leading the way on initiatives like moving workers remote and rethinking benefit offerings. Couple the pandemic with social unrest in light of George Floyd’s death and subsequent nationwide protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the importance of HR leaders is at a fever pitch. They’re providing guidance on diversity initiatives, employee engagement and more.

Jill Smart

Julie Taylor

“HR is playing the role it has always played—but it’s playing it in an exponential way,” says Jill Smart, president of the National Academy of Human Resources and former CHRO at consulting giant Accenture. “And because they’re doing it so well, I think that the HR profession is going to come out of this [stronger] because they’re going to have a key role.”

The pandemic has given HR executives elevated key roles in their organizations and a prominent voice amid turmoil, but they’ve also become an important source on how to treat employees, carry on the culture and lead the way in a time when employees are collectively experiencing more upheaval to their personal and professional lives than ever before.

Related: How agility, empathy are at the heart of “The Big Reset”

The role of HR leaders at organizations has historically been organization-centric: maintaining compliance, mitigating risk, enforcing policies. Employees traditionally aren’t comfortable with HR leaders. According to data from careers site Zety, for instance, 69% of employees don’t believe that HR takes the side of the employee, and most aren’t comfortable talking with HR about anything personal, aside from payroll and benefits.

Many CHROs insist that savvy HR leaders have long walked the line between being the ally to employees and to the organization. But they also acknowledge that a triple threat of crises—the pandemic, social unrest and subsequent economic turmoil—is pushing them to become more employee-centric than ever. They’re focusing on connection, empathy and employees’ mental health. And it’s sink-or-swim time for HR leaders who had not prioritized employees’ wellbeing in the past.

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“The crisis of COVID, quickly followed by the crisis around the social justice movement and responding appropriately to that … it’s really been a crucible for the HR function where just talk or unimportant fluff—that’s all burned away,” says Julie Taylor, CHRO at Broadridge Financial Solutions, a New York-based financial services firm with about 10,000 employees. “And that’s focused our minds on what’s important.”

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Read part two in the series here, part three here and part four here.

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s 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. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.