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Josh Bersin: HR’s role in crisis: creating a sense of trust

By: | March 24, 2020 • 3 min read
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He recently spoke at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

Up until recently, our worries as HR professionals were likely around initiatives such as organizational transformations, automation and AI, and workforce skills gaps. And suddenly, in the course of only days, many of our businesses were upended, we were scrambling to implement new work processes and employees were worried about their jobs and very survival.

Just as we found after 9/11, one of the critical roles of HR in times like these is to foster a sense of safety, trust and collective thinking in our people.

According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer , trust is based on three things: competence (doing things well), ethics (living by an ethical value system) and voice (giving people a chance to speak). As Edelman points out, today, the trust matrix is challenged. The most trusted institution in peoples’ lives is business; yet, while business is rated highest in terms of competence, it is perceived as less than ethical.

The coronavirus situation actually represents an opportunity. If you focus on your people in a competent and ethical way and you actively listen to their needs, you can drive up trust, teamwork and resilience.

As I discussed in a recent LinkedIn article, employees are the ones who will pull your company out of a financial slowdown. Therefore, we should be making decisions on issues such as working from home, social distancing, paid time off and financial assistance for testing and treatment in ways that make people feel safe, protected and heard.

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Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at the Harvard School of Business, has proven that companies that promote safety, ethics and voice drive improved employee and business performance. Her book, The Fearless Organization, points out how creating a true and genuine sense of safety drives results, as well as innovation and growth.

What About the Slowdown?

Clearly, there is going to be an economic slowdown, and this will result in layoffs and reduced pay. Even so, I ask you to think about people first.

Research shows again and again that, when these periods occur, companies that go through massive layoffs always underperform in the future and many eventually go out of business.

There are several reasons this happens. First, you lose valuable skills and knowledge when people are laid off. Second, you lose customer relationships. But worst of all, you lose the trust of employees. The people who remain go through “survivor syndrome” and always wonder “Am I going to be next?”

“These are the kinds of times that define the character of a company,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on March 14. “People want to work for an employer that cares about the bottom line and the wellbeing of its employees.”

I’m hoping the coronavirus health crisis and its subsequent economic impact won’t be as bad as we think, but right now people are uncertain and afraid. So, let’s slow down, accept the business interruption that’s taking place and take care of our people. In times like these, CEOs should be chief empathy officers first, and we HR leaders need to be guiding, advising and supporting them in making the right people-focused decisions. If we take this approach, the recovery will be faster, and our companies, personal lives and entire society will be better off.

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