Policies & Procedures

HR’s role in a crisis – April 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked us all. It’s returned the world to a state many of us hoped never to see again, and with stakes many others have never experienced.

It’s an important reminder for us HR professionals to always expect the unexpected. Very few organisations, even those operating in multiple countries, will have plans for dealing with invasions.

However, I’ve always been proud of our profession’s ability to adapt. We’re asked to develop long term strategies, only to be the last to find out about major organisational pivots. It’s this resilience to change which makes HR the obvious choice to manage crisis situations.

This should be a prompt to reassess risks. Despite long-term conflicts in the Middle East, we saw Ukraine as a stable country. Are there similar blind spots in other jurisdictions? Other places where conventional wisdom suggests that something is impossible?

What is your exit strategy? Are there employees who need to be expatriated, and what is the policy for local employees? In Ukraine we’ve seen conscription announced for all men aged between 18 and 60, as well as many civilians volunteering for service. If your employees were to walk out of work to pick up a rifle, how would you deal with that?

Many organisations simply won’t be able to leave a conflict zone. Many facilities can’t simply be turned off and left. If the worst were to happen, what happens to the employees that are needed to stay? And how confident can you be as an organisation that they will?

EMPLOYEE IMPACT

The Russia/Ukraine conflict is widely seen in the media and society through the lens of Ukraine Good, Russia Bad. This has tipped over into anti-Russian sentiment which could mean employees needing additional support. Whilst most organisations will have established diversity and inclusion programmes, our interventions are typically focused at groups who have always needed support. Organisations will need to act quickly to ensure people whose backgrounds are associated with a conflict are able to access support they may not have needed before.

Whilst politicians were careful from the outset to refer to ‘Putin’s war’ to avoid blaming soldiers, the emergence of war crimes on social media will doubtless make this line less sustainable.

The narrative in the west and the anglosphere has been firmly positioned behind Ukraine. But it’s important to realise that a huge number of countries in the Global South are following a different narrative in support of Russia. Remember that these countries, and nationals of these countries in the west, may hold very different views than the prevailing one, derived from different sources. Bear in mind the old adage that in conflict, especially one being shared live on social media, truth is always the first casualty.

There are also implications for organisations with operations in Russia. Many multi-nationals are withdrawing services from Russia, so what does this mean for their employees at offices and facilities in the country? If sanctions on financial transfers are invoked, can employees in Russia still be paid? If not, what support can you provide?

FIRST STEPS

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CROSS-ORGANISATION RESPONSE

HR’s response will be part of a wider organisational reaction. Many, if not all, parts of the organisation will be enacting protocols and planning next moves. For this reason, it’s crucial that the organisation’s response is being coordinated centrally. Force Majeure events are by their very nature fast moving. The information coming from the scene is sporadic, often contradictory, and rarely accurate.

HR’s cross-organisation role makes it best placed to coordinate the response to a crisis. Human life is always the most important thing, so having the most people focused part of the organisation in charge helps maintain that priority. Most other departmental responses are less time critical. None-the-less, we should identify key partners.

Finance is an obvious one. How do we release the funds required to secure transport? And how do we get it to employees on the ground?

Legal is also essential. The boycott of Russia has meant many multinational firms, including McDonalds and Ikea, have seen their stores taken over by copycat brands. These brands have been allowed to register trademarks that clearly infringe those of the original, Western brands. This partisan application of the law raises a clear problem for HR, as it suggests the law will not protect a foreign organisation. Suddenly you have no protection against overseas employees doing anything at all, from data abuse, corporate espionage, or exposure of interests. 

Finally, the CEO. It’s important during crisis planning to set escalation procedures. At what point does the CEO have to personally authorise an action, and how far can a department proceed along a planned sequence of actions before business as usual becomes an emergency?

TAKING ACTION

So what can you do?

ONE

Wargaming. For the past twenty years war has been something that happened far away to other people. The invasion of Ukraine is somewhat closer to home, and a reminder that not only is the world less safe than before, but for the majority of the world, it was never safe to begin with.

It would be a valuable insight to explore the likely consequences for your organisation of different scenarios. Some organisations may have high exposure to reserve service obligations (especially those with ex-military recruitment programmes) whilst others may be demographically exposed due to a young workforce.

TWO

Update social media policies. As I mentioned earlier, in war, truth is the first casualty, and your employees are likely to be discussing conflicts on social media. Is an employee who denies that one side is committing war crimes, or claims that the war is fake, in breach of a policy? They may be bringing their organisation into disrepute, but will any disciplinary action hold up to an employment tribunal?

THREE

Identify digital weaknesses. Cyber warfare has the potential to knock HR systems offline – what are your contingencies if rota software or payroll is down for a prolonged period? How long would it take to enact offline processes? Focus on the bare essentials of what employees need and make sure you’re always able to deliver.

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Policies & Procedures

The New Covid Rules

With the removal of all legal restrictions in England, employers are having to tear up the rule book from the past two years and start again.

Employers have a duty of care to all employees. So, whether an employee should be allowed to work with Covid is a challenging question. If an employee is wanting and willing to work, and the employer sends them home, they aren’t taking sickness absence but are medically suspended. This means they’re entitled to full pay.

There’s also the phasing out of free testing to contend with. Unless the employer is paying for testing, it’s unlikely they will be able to mandate the employee to self-test. And whilst for some people Covid-19 is a serious and potentially deadly disease, for most of the working population it can be imperceptible from a cold.

This leaves the employer in a quandary. Whilst some employers will be able to switch to a hybrid working model where employees with mild illnesses work from home until well, there are plenty of roles where this is impossible. Many sectors, including retail and manufacturing, are run with the bare minimum of employees and have no slack in the system to enable routine medical suspensions for cold symptoms.

For these sectors, where presenteeism and zero-hours contracts are already common, it’s highly unlikely that line managers would encourage absenteeism for mild Covid symptoms, whether backed up by a positive test or not. In these circumstances you’re likely to see a clash between HR cautiousness and operational requirements.

Legislative Differences

There are certainly implications for cross-border work. Requirements to self-isolate remain in Wales and Scotland (self-isolation in Northern Ireland has always been a recommendation). What this means in practice is debatable, as enforcement and spot checks of quarantine ended long ago, but we would suggest that any employee with a positive test or who has symptoms which would require them to take a Covid test in Scotland or Wales shouldn’t be travelling across the border.

This confusion applies to travel. For example, Margaret Ferrier, the now independent Scottish MP accused of travelling from Glasgow to London with Covid symptoms, would now only have potentially committed an offence for a portion of her journey. It’s already been the case for several months that train passengers must put masks on when they pass Carlisle or Bristol, having travelled for hours unmasked – rules that showcase the futility of unilaterally imposing local restrictions.

But nonetheless, this means a catch-all cross-UK policy can’t be applied. And this does have implications for sickness and the principles of fairness. Employment law isn’t a devolved matter, so applies equally across the UK. This means sanctioning an employee for isolating with Covid in England would likely be unfair treatment if a comparator in Scotland isn’t also sanctioned for self-isolating. And of course, the Scottish or Welsh comparator is legally obliged to self-isolate, and so can’t be sanctioned by an employer.

Taking Action

So, what should employers do? Obviously, case law doesn’t exist, and for the likely short period (months rather than years) that self-isolation rules are divergent, the safest and fairest option is to allow employees in England to isolate for the same amount of time as the longest comparator in the devolved nations.

If employees can work from home (and of course, symptoms permitting), it may be worth offering this as an option, especially if the employee is receiving statutory sick pay. This relieves financial pressures whilst allowing employees to ‘do the right thing’.

Whilst employers have been able to mandate face coverings for employees through the pandemic, it may be harder to do so in the near future. Many of the mask rules have seemed counterintuitive throughout the pandemic, and employer rules will face increasing resistance with mandates having dropped almost everywhere else.

On the flip side to this is the employees who may want to continue wearing masks. It may seem strange for an employer to want to ban masks, but when you think about some of the dress standards enforced to this day, nothing should be a surprise. Currently Government guidance is that employees, visitors and customers may choose to wear a face covering in any setting – the emphasis is on ‘may choose to’, rather than ‘may choose not to’.

Finally, we should be aware that many people feel a very real anxiety about Covid. Whilst this may be disproportionate to their risk factors, it’s a very real response to the pandemic and is an example of how people move along the change curve at their own speed.

An employment tribunal has already found that a fear of catching and transmitting Covid isn’t a protected belief (in the imaginatively named X v Y 2021), but should this fear develop to a state of anxiety that impacts the employee’s mental health they may be covered under the protected characteristic of Disability.
However, in this case I suspect that demonstrating their anxiety is purely driven by fear of Covid would be challenging for the employee and could only be sustained by refusal to engage with medication or therapy-based treatments.

Helping employees proceed along the change curve will be key to the post-Covid transition and clear communications will help everyone understand expectations and planned actions.

We should also not forget that a new variant of Covid or an entirely new pathogen could quickly result in restrictions resuming. So don’t shred those signs quite yet!

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Policies & Procedures

The Culture Cycle – September 2021

Your organisational values determine the employees you attract and recruit.

Your employees determine the culture in your workplace.

Your workplace culture determines your organisational values.

Repeat.

Some say that leaders determine organisational culture. I disagree; even in organisations with the most toxic leadership you can imagine, it’s HR that shapes organisational culture. It’s HR who have the position, the authority and the obligation to challenge where others don’t.

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CHANGES AHEAD

Post pandemic working will bring forward big changes in organisational values and culture. David Solomon of Goldman Sachs was amongst the first to set their stall out.

“It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct” he said, referring to home working.  This is the CEO of an organisation whose junior bankers report ‘inhumane’ and ‘abusive’ working conditions including 105-hour weeks.

Of course, the Goldman Sachs leadership are entitled to build whatever culture they want. No-one’s suggesting they’ve done anything illegal; nobody would describe their junior bankers (whose year one salary is £79,000 before bonuses) as victims of modern slavery.

But the culture they’ve developed and the values they wear very publicly will attract a certain type of candidate. Highly driven, very able and almost certainly ruthless. All perfect qualities for an investment banker.

A quick look to history however shows that having a workforce entirely made up of aggressive, cut throat go-getters could be an issue for the banking sector. They create the sort of culture where Jérôme Kerviel was able to lose Société Générale €4.9 billion.

And this sort of problem isn’t solved by diversity initiatives either. The values – employee – culture cycle is cunningly impervious to such techniques. It’s completely possible to have a highly diverse (according to all the metrics) workforce who all hold the same values. Indeed, for a business like Goldman Sachs, they would neither attract nor recruit people without those values.

OVERCOMING RESISTANCE

As you might be able to tell, I’ve got the utmost sympathy for those who forge a HR career in this sector. But returning to my initial argument, HR can and should still influence the organisation’s culture.

In our Goldman Sachs example, we already know the organisational values being set by the leadership (regardless of whether this is done formally or informally). There’s nothing HR can do about that in the short term. But these values exist because they’re what the leaders believe drive the best results for the business.

You can challenge these with comparators. Not only from the same sector (UBS have just announced they’re adopting a hybrid working approach to become a more attractive employer) but also in other sectors; in our example, the industry that has replaced finance as both the world’s most valuable and vilified: big tech.

Use these comparators to build your case. Your main opponent is fear of the unknown, so you’ll need evidence to convert leaders to your point of view. Even outspoken organisational leaders don’t reach their position by being dogmatic in their views – they achieve their position by being flexible and adapting to new evidence as it arises. 

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

It’s not just the bottom line that matters, even for Goldman Sachs. Solomon’s words are aimed at customers, reassuring them that his bankers will be working non-stop to grow their investments.

But one just has to look at this spring’s ill-fated launch of the Super League to see how organisation’s arrogance can severely damage a brand. And numbers alone aren’t the only consideration for customers. Reputational damage emerges very quickly merely by association, driven by social media. Examples include the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which demands advertisers don’t deal with certain media partners.

That means both doing the right thing, and recognising that the ‘right thing’ is subject to change.

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WHERE TO BEGIN

There are a few things you can start thinking about today

ONE

Pick your battles. Every sector and industry has specific challenges, and some cultures and values are deeply embedded. Whilst the idealist in you may want to ‘correct’ things, ‘the blob’ will always resist… and usually win.

There are three parts in the culture cycle. Recruitment of employees is the area where HR can project its influence and start to produce change.

TWO

Celebrate victories. Changing the culture and values of an organisation is a process that will probably be completed by someone else well into the future; the important thing is you’ve made a difference.

Employee surveys are great indicators of change. Set yourself graduated milestones to celebrate. After all, culture change is a marathon not a sprint and regularly hitting milestones gives both you and the wider business cause to celebrate and evidence of your impact.

THREE

Formal rules can be changed. It’s the informal, unwritten ones that are inflexible. It’s a challenge that occurs often with diversity and inclusion, a specialism which is primarily concerned with culture change.

This is a problem for HR, who aren’t embedded in teams or functions and can’t see that large chunks of the organisation are following a completely different set of procedures. Often this disparity doesn’t show up until it reaches an employment tribunal, where it’ll be written off as the actions of a rogue individual.

That’s not true. It’s simply that the individual hasn’t realised when they needed to switch to the official rules.

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