Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis: 5 Employee Relations Fundamentals

By Deb Muller, on March 17, 2020

COVID-19 has changed the workplace, literally. I have a new co-worker named Doggie ImageMax (he has 4 legs and is always in a good mood.) I still see my colleagues every day, but now they’re faces on the screen instead of in the next office or in the cafeteria. In New Jersey, where I live, we have an 8 p.m. curfew, except for work, food and emergencies.  

And, the situation changes daily. As employers and employees, we are all facing a new normal, and none of us knows how long it will last.

We employee relations professionals are on the frontlines, without a playbook. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.) And, as I’m hearing from so many of you, we have all have questions and questions.

How do we keep our teams up and running remotely? Should we pay people who aren’t salaried? How do we deal with the potential of multiple accommodations and health claims? What about mental health issues, like calming anxious team members (and ourselves?) How much do we communicate, and when? Do we name employees who do fall sick? How do we deal with child care when working from home?

It’s unprecedented, and we’re all navigating the uncharted waters together. All we can rely on are the fundamentals and best practices we’ve used successfully as employee relations professionals every day.

I will answer ER specific questions in this blog regularly as the pandemic continues. But today, I want to talk about 5 fundamentals that I believe get us through this and every crisis – and what you can expect from us here at HR Acuity.

1> Consistency -- in Treatment, Tracking and Documentation


It’s always critical to treat team members equitably and follow consistent practices and processes when it comes to employee issues. That goes double during times of uncertainty.

We must also consistently and accurately document and track whatever employee issues that arise during the pandemic, including requests for sick leave, accommodations, allegations of discrimination, etc. Without accurate data, employees could claim retaliation, harassment or unfair treatment – and you also won’t have a record of what went right.

We haven’t experienced a situation like this in our lifetimes. Without tracking and data, it will be impossible to analyze patterns and data – where incidents arose, how patterns tracked to outbreaks and more.

Document, track and record so you can treat employees right now and analyze best practices later.

2> Communication

It’s a cliché, but there is no way to over-communicate during a crisis. Especially now that our teams are almost all working remotely, they are looking for clarity and for connection (another C!) Here are a few best practices employee relations leaders have recommended, many of which we have successfully put into practice here at HR Acuity:

  • Create a centralized portal or place for communications. Post regularly and enable team members to check in.

  • Ensure your team members know where to go for help with employee-related issues. It’s ok not to know all the answers. None of us does. But ensure your team knows how to reach employee relations with questions. Consider dedicated office hours, regular virtual huddles and phone numbers. Go beyond text – people want to hear voices.

  • Have daily stand-up meetings, 1:1s and checkins. Video conferencing is having its day in the sun, and no wonder. We are social beings, and social isolation is, well, isolating. Don’t cancel your regular meetings – if anything, have more. Have virtual lunches, happy hours and get togethers.

  • Be present! Turn on that camera and be there for each other and your team. Yes, they can see you multitasking. Pay attention to each other and be in the moment. It’s more important than ever when video may be your only touchpoints.

3> Creativity (and Free Access!)

There’s nothing like a giant curveball to call up our innate creativity and flexibility – and we will all need it to get through this period. We don’t know how long it will last, or what arrangements we will need to make. Our usual best practices may get turned on their heads, and in some cases already are.

But creativity also leads to some great things. So we don’t go to physical tradeshows and events – I’ve been to some terrific virtual ones already, and I’m sure you have too.

We also got creative here at HR Acuity and thought about how we could help employee relations and HR professionals and came up with this – we are offering free access to our employee relations platform to help document and track issues. It’s meant for clients who don’t already have the platform, to get them quick help with COVID-19. Pass the word on.

What creative steps are you taking?

4> Collaboration

The Greek philosopher Aristotle may have been the first to write about the “wisdom of the crowd,” but he is far from the last. Remember the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” If you ask the audience, they get the answer right over 90% of the time (compared to calling an expert – just 65% of the time.)

The same holds true in times of crisis. As employee relations experts, we have each other to lean on. We’ve been polling our Roundtable Community around what they’re doing in their organizations, and they’re all helping each other. We’ll share best practices here in this blog, and encourage you to reach out to your peers to share, compare and learn.

For example, we’ve learned that most employee relations professionals in the Roundtable have:

  • Restricted travel – U.S. and international – to essential only
  • Are following CDC, WHO and city-specific guidelines
  • Are working remote
  • Identified essential personnel and have activated or are creating crisis management playbooks
  • Created SWAT communications/crisis teams that meet 3 times a week, daily or more
  • Monitor news regularly and communicate with teams daily (as noted above)

These survey results are from last week, but still worth a look: View the roundtable survey results here

They’re also prepared to conduct virtual investigations and much more. Watch this space for more ER guidance.

Have a question? Reach out to me directly at dmuller@hracuity.com.

5> Compassion 


Finally, let’s talk about compassion.

We are all facing very real issues right now. Many of us are fortunate to be able to work from home, but not all. Many of our team members (and us) are feeling real anxiety, making the importance of EAP and other mental health offerings crucial, as well as the need for an empathetic ear.

Most important, we are all in this together, and collectively, we will pull through it together. I have confidence in all of you and I look to you for support as well we guide each other.

I’ll take my own advice and communicate frequently. Please let me know if there are specific areas you’d like me to focus on. Stay safe and healthy.

If you’d like help tracking issues related to COVID-19, reach out to me at dmuller@hracuity.com and let’s talk.

 

P.S. We’ve also set up a COVID-19 Resources page of resources for you to keep you current. Check it out here.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller

Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.

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