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Heightened State of Preparedness – Print – Issue 207 – January 2022 | Article of the Week


COVID-19 exposed the HR profession to crisis management in ways not seen or experienced before in the modern era. As we progress through this insidious pandemic, perceptions and expectations of HR have heightened, with people reliant on answers and solutions. That people bore the brunt was inevitable, with many working remotely, isolated, some vulnerable, they looked to HR for support. That a closer relationship with greater understanding and trust between employees and HR has formed, could be an unexpected positive outcome.

While this greater exposure presents an opportunity for HR Directors and their teams, it also brings new challenges and greater scrutiny to deliver results, as organisations navigate through the continuing twists and turns of the pandemic, as well as other major issues impacting employees. Staying on the front foot, planning for a stable future and identifying any potential gaps before a crisis happens, is going to be vital. Clearly, a more collaborative approach to crisis management is required and staff health and wellbeing is integral to that. The inescapable truth is, without healthy people, fully engaged – supported with clear channels of communication – a crisis response is much less likely to be effective. The latest results from the BCI Crisis Management Report 2021*, revealed that 87.4 percent of respondents acknowledged mental health as a key consideration within their crisis management plans. A further 40.3 percent of organisations were affected by staff mental health issues in 2020. This all demonstrates how, with many staff working from home, wellbeing and mental support has to be a key factor. Mental health is an issue that has to be addressed head on and requires the right processes and materials in place to help employees with their health and wellbeing needs. Given the sensitivities involved, this is not an issue to address after a crisis hits, what needs to be in place is an effective and accessible mental health platform that can be easily activated, whenever an employee needs it.

HR has more power and capability to initiate large-scale strategies than ever before, which is great timing, as they are more likely to find themselves on a centralised team managing a crisis. Indeed, centralisation has been accelerated by the pandemic and will continue into 2022, as organisations require the level of agility and coordination. This is reflected in the report which showed how effective centralisation has been, with 81.3 percent of respondents who adopted a centralised or hybrid approach, reporting their crisis management capabilities were either “good” or “excellent”. This was higher than companies using a decentralised approach, but while centralisation can be beneficial, it’s still important to balance the needs of all stakeholders involved in centralised models. There is clearly a danger that structures that don’t listen and account for the concerns of people across an organisation during a crisis, can become very rigid. One high profile example of this came in Italy after the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009, which was the deadliest earthquake in Italy for over 25 years. In an attempt to handle the crisis, a dominating command-and[1]control group was established which turned into a major failure, as it overlooked local services, leaving local experts side-lined and residents fearful. As a result, the town effectively became militarised, resulting in many local residents leaving the town in protest.

Examples like this highlight how key decisions cannot occur in a vacuum and so HR Directors must help the crisis management team find the middle ground between effective control and stifling domination, by helping the team actively seek out the input of regional experts. This is because regional experts are often best placed to understand country-specific issues, which is vital knowledge when it comes to effective crisis management. For example, the COVID-19 crisis has impacted different risks all over the world, with rises in petty crime, political corruption and misinformation occurring at various degrees of severity in different regions. To handle this risk complexity, HR Directors and crisis management teams should ensure they have effective resources on the ground, partnering with the right external experts if there are not any relevant internal specialists. These partners can help share actionable local insight, which can inform crisis management plans and streamline the entire process. HR leaders with regional responsibilities, must also ensure they have a voice at the global table, so that their needs are addressed. They can do this by making sure they remain close to the global function, developing a close relationship – coupled with efforts to highlight how important local insight can be – is a good strategy for promoting the needs of specific regions and developing a truly comprehensive crisis management platform.

On crisis management teams, HR has an essential role in ensuring that the team does not operate in siloes. By bringing together the expertise of employees working across a company, an organisational culture defined by collaboration can flourish. This is something that HR Directors can be very effective at, due to their close proximity to the entire workforce and ability to make sure different employee voices are heard. Practice makes perfect with these efforts and it is really advisable to hold regular simulations, scenario planning and benchmarking. These efforts can identify where vulnerabilities in particular teams lie and where they personally have gaps in knowledge and capabilities. Using this insight, they can then proactively find partners who can provide specialist support in these areas. On this matter, HR must play a central role and become the training enabler of this vital cross[1]functions expertise. Fundamentally, information, processes, deliverables, communications, ad hoc teams, plans and strategies must all be in line with an organisation’s risk assessment and identifying vulnerabilities is paramount. Equally, it is important to spot and alleviate blind spots, “unspoken deltas” or bias in companies which may undermine their crisis management function.

Understanding where the gaps lie in policies and plans will be a key task in 2022, both for crisis management and beyond. As businesses learn to adapt to hybrid working, with staff spread out between multiple locations, the potential for new gaps to be created is very real, particularly as many businesses will not have first-hand experience of mass hybrid working. This is why it is all the more important that HR Directors are on hand to help with this transition. They can help their companies account for three essential factors; to control/overview the situation, to be able to activate or communicate with teams and to make sure they are capable/able to solve a crisis. HR’s increased involvement in crisis management presents a golden opportunity to exert influence and gain senior level buy-in. Collaborating with other available experts is an important part of this story, to ensure the right internal and external partners are in place to help formulate an effective crisis management response. Utilising regional experts and other essential resources will be a key task for 2022, as many major risks are still a present danger and need to be effectively planned for.

*Report by International SOS


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