Let your ‘moral compass be the guide’ during crisis

How harnessing the humanity of HR can help people survive–and thrive.
By: | August 20, 2020 • 4 min read

While compassion has always been a hallmark of HR, the global COVID-19 crisis has propelled it to the frontlines. The widespread rallying cry for equal opportunity has systematically peeled the layers of HR down to its core, reminding leaders to lean on their emotional intelligence and charge ahead with their heart and head. Now more than ever before, HR executives are emboldened to reassess their purpose, revive their internal communications strategies and cultivate a “culture of care,” where transparency, vulnerability, humility and authenticity reign supreme.

Whether you’re announcing progressive policies and benefits packages to accommodate remote operations, strategies to enforce equality or organizational restructuring, humanity will be on your side if you let your moral compass be your guide and lead with compassion. Consider these three steps to successfully communicating with compassion in times of crisis.

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Take Uncertainty Out of the Equation

When a national leader in HR services decided to strategically rebrand and unify its solutions under one umbrella, executives anticipated that a lack of employee engagement, skepticism and confusion would arise. To address this, they developed succinct messaging that clearly articulated what was being announced while instilling optimism in the future direction of the company. This included detailed talk tracks, FAQ documents, interactive training and practice sessions, along with email language to ensure that executive leaders and other internal ambassadors were speaking from a consistent, united front.

Related: How COVID is changing the role of HR leaders

Author Lisa Hildebrandt

In times of anxiety, analysis paralysis and ambiguity, fear tends to run rampant internally. Without fully understanding the rationale behind a new program or change to existing structures, employees may start formulating their own (often illogical) stories and believe them wholeheartedly. For instance, they may convince themselves that they’re on the chopping block for the next round of layoffs, and their focus and performance may deteriorate as a result. For this reason, compassionate leaders make it their mission to clearly articulate the situation, steps they’re taking to achieve their stated objectives, potential outcomes and real-time progress updates so everyone has visibility into the forward-facing strategy. This helps employees understand the impact on their role and how their contributions align with the long-term vision of the organization.

Listen and Lean into Learning

CHROs at global Fortune 500 organizations, including Verizon, Accenture and Cisco, have been leading regular (oftentimes daily) all-hands meetings with their 70,000-130,000-plus employees. These sessions cultivate engagement, connection and community even from afar by providing a forum to virtually  share business updates and new developments in employees’ personal lives (homes, kids and pets).

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Compassionate HR executives understand the critical importance of checking in on people at the heart and human level. They’re fiercely committed to understanding what people are feeling and experiencing while encouraging a diverse flow of ideas that empower employees to think freely and share feedback openly. They strive to genuinely connect with each person on a daily basis by asking: How can I best support you today? What obstacles can I clear out of your way? What do you need to set your emotional, mental and physical health, and wellbeing at ease?

Be Vulnerable in the Moments that Matter  

When Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky faced the difficult decision to lay off employees, he took bold action and led with compassion and vulnerability:I have a deep feeling of love for all of you. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, ‘Travel like a human.’ The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love. … Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.” This powerful statement reinforced the organization’s foundational focus on humanity during a time of great personal and professional unease.

According to positive psychology, compassion is “empathy in action.” And HR leaders are empathetic ambassadors. As the chief people officers, employees look to HR for comfort and direction, so it’s imperative for them to put their personal agendas aside. As the example above illustrates, compassionate HR leaders can do this by being people-first, service-led, vulnerable and transparent in the moments that matter.

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Related: Why empathy is the biggest trend in benefits

Above all, be people-first in charting the path forward. In this new world of work, HR is a catalyst for resilience, business continuity and innovation. HR leaders set the tone for the entire organization by harnessing the speed and scale of change and swiftly predicting, preparing and adapting to shifting employee motivations and expectations. In other words, the right choice is always to put people, heart and humanity first. With this mindset, HR leaders can empower their people with the tools needed to survive—but thrive—in this rapidly evolving business climate.

Lisa Hildebrandt is an account director at A.wordsmith, a boutique communications firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon.