Paul Hebert looks at how COVID-19 impacts HR’s role now and over the next decade, “The real hard work in HR is just now beginning. I believe this event will impact work this year, next year and the next 10 years. And we need HR to help lead.”

Can HR Do Their Future Job?

My career has not been HR friendly.

Ninety percent of my interactions with HR have been adversarial. Either me advocating for someone on my team or me arguing the stupidity of a policy created during the Hoover administration that somehow still needs to be enforced. Those interactions have colored my belief in whether HR, as practiced today, should even exist any more.

With online resources for storing policies (and the reduction in work policies in general) and technologies that can quickly and consistently manage the application of HR workflows, I wonder what exactly HR brings to the table. The legal side could be handled by, well, legal. The “management” side should be handled by managers. Other than formatting the company newsletter what’s left?

I know I’m simplifying the overall role of HR in order to set up my point, but I think there are big swaths of employees who feel HR isn’t that critical. I’ve gone on record suggesting HR has a huge self-confidence issue and low self-esteem because of this wide-spread belief.

But if nothing else I’m a learner. I constantly challenge my assumptions. I look for contradicting evidence and adapt as the world changes. That is my recipe for staying somewhat relevant in this world. At least I think I’m relevant. Just don’t ask my kids because other than setting up home networks and routers, and income tax preparation, I don’t think they believe I’m that relevant.

But the evidence that good HR is both relevant and required hit me smack in the face recently.

And that punch landed hard, imprinting its initials deep in my thinking – COVID-19.

When The Fan Gets Hit

When I was 11 I told my mother I didn’t like her much when she said I couldn’t spend the night at Doug Okuly’s house. But she was also the person I screamed and cried for a week later when I fell out of the treehouse Doug and I were making and broke my arm. I knew who to go to in an emergency. I knew who would comfort me and make it better.

And now I know where to go in an emergency like COVID-19.


Paul Hebert, HRExaminer.com 2015

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

While it may seem dismissive and infantilizing to say HR is the “Mommy” (substitute Daddy if that works best for you) we go running to when the stuff hits the fan … it is a fact it is the first stop we make when we need someone to provide immediate professional action that affects all employees – and work in general.

The importance of HR became even clearer when I saw this recent article in Strategy+Business online – a publication from member firms of the PwC network – entitled “Seven Key Actions Business Can Take to Mitigate the Effects of the COVID-19 Virus.” The article listed the following actions leaders need to take with respect to COVID-19:

  • Review workforce locations and travel.
  • Revisit your crisis and continuity plans.
  • Evaluate the supply chain.
  • Identify potential points of failure.
  • Get communication right.
  • Use scenario analysis.

Nowhere in the article does it mention HR. But I see this list and it screams HR. HR is THE leader in almost every single one of the critical actions listed. And if they aren’t leading the specific effort, they are required to coordinate the inputs/outputs of that area of focus.

HR is no longer the department of parties and birthday cakes.

It is the department of saving all of our collective butts.

Today, it is a department that saves LIVES and businesses!

Ultimately, I hope (believe) we will get through this without catastrophic impact. I also think we’ll learn from it and we will create better responses for future issues and emergencies such as this. It is unfortunate, but sometimes you need something like this to remind people what the REAL function of HR is.

We don’t need HR to handle the day-to-day Karen and Doug problems.

You need HR to handle the COVID-19 problems. And probably more the more critical issue – the aftermath of it.

And that is the next reason HR is required.

Don’t Look Now

The one thing I wish I could tell HR is that they will get a good long vacation after this COVID-19 “issue” smooths out.  But they won’t.

The real hard work in HR is just now beginning. I believe this event will impact work this year, next year and the next 10 years. And we need HR to help lead.

Going forward we’ll be looking at fundamentally new employment constructs and rules that many HR departments and general managers would have thought anathema just one year ago. Or in many cases couldn’t even imagine. Constraints create new-normal. And this outbreak is creating a whole new normal. And it’s different than a simple gas leak that keeps people away from work for a day. That’s easy. Every business can handle that. But remove employees from “work environments” for a month – or MORE – and you’ve got some real business issues to tackle. Issues that will eventually become “the way we do things now.”

Things like: Telework on a massive scale. Upgrades to virtual presence technology. Re-evaluating what in-person meetings are needed and necessary. Changes in business metrics and work validation and verification. New reporting. New definitions of performance. New training requirements for being human without being in person. Internet bandwidth.

We are going to see all kinds of new ideas and new ways of getting work done. For some companies, it will be easy as they are pretty virtual already (mine included.) For others who still worry about doctor notes for sick days… well… you’re in for a huge wake-up call.

My hope is that HR takes the bull by the horns and does the hard work of creating and selling these new ideas.

Because if HR, as REO Speedwagon said, just rides this storm out, and goes back to organizing “Pi-Day” events on March 14 each year, they don’t deserve to be the mission-critical department we need when things like COVID-19 rear their ugly and pandemic heads.

Read previous post:
HRExaminer v10.63

For a decade, HR Tech vendors uniformly claimed that the holy grail of software was the consumer experience delivered by...