HR Leaders – Are You Really Listening to Your Employees?

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Much has already been written about how disruptive the events of 2020 have been – that’s not a news flash. The impact on organizations, careers, and personal lives has been substantial and is still being sorted through. In the heat of the moment, HR and organizational leaders were forced to react and make quick decisions to keep pace with rapidly changing events. Businesses scrambled to respond, making changes to policies and practices that affected employees’ schedules, workflow, safety, and wellbeing.

Now, for the first time in over a year, with the escalating rollout of the COVID vaccine in the U.S. and across the globe, the wave appears to have crested and leaders can begin to assess the situation more closely. Were changes in the broader economic and social environment transitory or will they remain? Which new workplace policies or practices should remain in place? Are there former policies that should be reinstated? And of critical importance, what are the needs and interests of the most important workplace asset – the employees – that need to be addressed?

Over the past 15-20 years, HR and organizational leaders have focused on the importance of employee engagement, striving to help workers make a meaningful connection between their work and the purpose and mission of the organization. And while engagement remains important, there is growing evidence that employees are seeking something different from their employers – a desire to be “heard” on a range of issues, often not work-related. Several trends that emerged in 2020 will continue to be important in the years ahead:

  • Societal and political issues are coming into the workplace more frequently – there has been a blurring of lines between what are and are not “acceptable” topics for conversations in the work environment.
  • Many newer participants in the workforce – millennials and Gen Z – are seeking to have more of a voice in the issues that companies choose to address. Look at recent examples of Google and Facebook employees pushing on leadership over political advertising on their respective platforms, or Adidas employees urging leadership for more impactful strides on DE&I initiatives.
  • There is a growing expectation on the part of employees that senior leaders – particularly C-level leaders – will take a public stance on social and/or political issues, topics that leaders historically steered well clear of for fear of alienating some segments of their stakeholders.
  • The COVID pandemic has heightened the sense of a lack of security on the part of many people, regardless of demographics – will their fundamental concerns over health and safety be heard and addressed by their employer?
  • Evidence points to a growing lack of trust about institutions in our society. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that public trust eroded significantly in “social institutions” – defined as government, business, media, and non-governmental organizations – as a result of events in 2020 and that people now rely mostly on their employers for accurate information on a wide range of issues.

In the context of these trends, the role of the HR function is also being questioned by employees. While HR has always straddled the line between employee advocacy and management support, it has historically been viewed as a “management” function – and employees, increasingly, are asking if the HR function can or will advocate for their interests and needs. Many employees have an increased focus on purpose, personal values, and living in alignment with both, which has implications for the work they do and what they expect from their employer. How will HR assure employees that their health, well-being, and psychological safety are of paramount concern to the company? Will HR understand and accept that employees want to bring their whole, authentic self into work—and will HR programs and policies foster a work environment that encourages this? Can HR credibly balance their employee advocacy and management support responsibilities?

As HR leaders begin to assess and plan their talent and workforce engagement strategies for the post-pandemic world, it will be important to address this misalignment in the perception of HR’s role. What steps can HR leaders consider?

  1. Re-envision Employee Resource Groups (ERG) to provide a more expansive charter to enable ERG members to explore and advocate for a wider range of business and organizational topics, rather than be limited in scope of what the group can address.
  2. Explore various shared governance models to allow for more employee input – or, having a “voice” – on a broad range of issues. Shared governance is a common and effective structure within healthcare, which promotes shared decision making by making employees accountable for decisions that impact policies and work practices at the point of care. How might non-healthcare companies explore this concept?
  3. Acknowledge the blurring of lines between work and non-work issues and create a culture and work environment in which a broader range of issues are viewed as acceptable and appropriate for discussion.
  4. Focus on cultivating empathy as a critical leadership skill. Empathy establishes trust, and establishing trust enables more productive working relationships. At a time when employees’ health and wellbeing concerns are heightened, an empathetic leader is a huge net plus.
  5. Re-position the HR delivery model so that HR is viewed more neutrally by employees, allowing HR to step into the space of employee advocacy more credibly…. while retaining responsibility to act in the best interests of the organization. Consider, for example, the 2019 decision by the Business Roundtable to redefine the purpose of a corporation as one to serve all stakeholders, not just a narrow set of shareholders. This is a useful analogy as HR leaders think about how to allocate resources (i.e., HR staff, budget dollars, program support) to address the needs of both employee and leadership stakeholders.

The confluence of COVID-19, economic, and societal issues is a “sea change” moment that will fundamentally alter how employees want and expect to interact with their employers. And like any healthy, mutual relationship, it all starts with listening. Merriam-Webster defines hearing as “the process or power of perceiving a sound.” Listening, on the other hand, means “to hear something with thoughtful attention and to give consideration.” So, HR leaders – are you really listening to your employees?

Rob Croner
Vice President, Senior Executive Services
CCI Consulting

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