HR Lessons Learned from 2020 and What They Mean For Your Workplace Today and In The Future

Since March of 2020, almost every American has experienced stress and uncertainty related to COVID-19, race relations, political division, and both day-to-day and long-term financial stability. This uncertainty and stress is true for anyone in a human resources role who is managing this personally and in the workplace among employees.

Lee Yarborough, President of Propel HR, spoke to the August 2021 joint meeting of Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy and the NonProfit Alliance about how to approach human resource issues.  Propel HR is an HR outsourcing company offering PEO and HR solutions that supports over 350 clients with payroll, benefits, workers comp, and HR compliance.

Lee reminded everyone how important it is to stop and celebrate the work their teams have done thus far.  She pointed out that when the COVID crisis began, many of us believed there’d be a clear end point in which we could celebrate the end of the pandemic. But there is still no finish line in sight. So Lee encouraged attendees to take a moment to pause and recognize all of the hard efforts and good work that teams have done up to this point.

She then offered tips and things to consider, framed by the biggest challenges that HR directors are seeing in 2021.

Talent shortage. Finding and retaining employees is something employers across the country are wrestling with. To remain or become competitive, Lee suggested:

Evaluating your salaries, compensation, and benefits.  Are they in line with or better than other potential employers? You can seek feedback from current and recent employees (if you’ve lost an employee because of benefits, for example, ask why).

Consider more flexible work structure. It’s an employees’ market, and workplaces across the country are allowing work-from-home, more flexible in-office days, and accountability based on work product rather than time at an in-office desk.

Be creative in showing appreciation when you can’t increase salary or benefits. Lee said part of this is letting your employees know they are seen and heard.  Ideas offered by attendees:

  • Flexible work hours and work-from-home

  • Gift cards as a thank you

  • A “fun committee” of employees to develop activities to build the team

  • Generous PTO policies

  • Occasional catered lunches

  • Using leftover silent auction items from a fundraiser as gifts for employees

  • Closing at noon on Fridays

Analyze your culture.  Are you living up to the value and mission of your organization? What does a “good fit” look like for you? Lee suggested that leaders consider assessments to improve in hiring a cultural fit

But Lee also urged folks not to fear the talent shortage.  She said that if it appears an employee’s performance will never meet expectations, supervisors should trust their gut and document the issues and attempts to make corrections. Having a poorly performing member of the team can affect all team members, so it’s important to rectify.

COVID-19. Lee pointed out that businesses and organizations have the right to create their own policies and procedures related to COVID.  However, what many of us determined in the Spring of 2020 may no longer be relevant now that we’ve learned so much from science and various court cases.

It’s worth revisiting and reminding employees about policies related to COVID exposure, what happens if schools or child care centers are closed because of COVID, rules about travel and visits, and much more. If you have questions about these things, then your team certainly has questions.

Lee also reminded attendees that they should be mindful of government relief packages they may have received or want to pursue, such as Paycheck Protection Program (and working on forgiveness) or Employee Retention Tax Credits.

Vaccination requirements and incentives are hot topics with employers across the country.  At the time of the webinar, Lee said that it was possible that employers could require vaccines, but that most nonprofits don’t want to be the test case for this.  Suzie Foley at Greenville Free Clinic said that in consultation with their health care partners, they developed a policy that says if employees aren’t vaccinated they must receive a weekly PCR test, but other free clinics are requiring vaccination of all employees. Since the webinar, the Society of Human Resource Management and others have published blogs and guidance on the topic.

Operational agility.  Leaders have had to help manage the fears and anxiety of employees even as they manage their own stress. This is a good time to explore leadership training and coaching, as we are at an inflection point in society as well as in our work life.  On a lighter note, there are ways to promote positive culture during this time, with things such as Zoom birthday parties or an outside food or ice cream truck.

Mental health. That COVID and the fear and isolation it creates has taken a toll on mental health around the world is well document. As employers, nonprofit leaders should review their mental health benefits and how they can provide support to their employees. Lee reported that mental illness is one of the top five claims for disability insurance.  Employers may wish to consider an Employee Assistance Program for their employees.  Organizations can also train managers on how to recognize and support employees with mental health challenges and how to avoid stigmatizing language.

Polarizing issues.  As we see play out on social media every day, Americans are more divided than ever. Naturally, the strong views that people have outside of the workplace can make their way into work.  A leader’s role is to keep the workplace productive.  Lee offered several things for employers to consider:

Understand the very thin line between opinion and harassment.  Supervisors expressing opinions on issues can be perceived by their subordinates as harassment.

Political activity in the workplace is not protected by the first amendment (with one exception).  The first amendment relates to government restricting free speech.  But private enterprises can and should consider restricting employees’ discussions of and displays on behalf of political candidates and issues at work.

The exception to this is employee activity that is directly related to workplace conditions. The National Labor Relations Act protects non-supervisory employees’ ability to discuss matters related to the workplace such as pay, benefits, and workplace safety.

Develop or review social media policies regarding the ways in which employees represent themselves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and more, and how and whether they are allowed to do so while at work. Related to this, Lee recommended that employers and supervisors not “friend” or “follow” their employees, but noted this is up for debate.

Lead with kindness and professionalism. As a leader, you set the tone for whether polarizing topics enter the workplace and how differences of opinion can be handled.

You can read more on this topic here.  Lee suggested that by signing up for newsletters from employment law firms, employers can access very helpful information.

Lee emphasized two points in closing. First, when there are no clear answers or direction for HR decisions, employers should consider the balance of risk and reward. What will most benefit the organization and mission and workforce?  What are the risks of the benefit?  Second, people want to be heard.  Listening to your employees can help them and help you be a better, more responsive employer.

Lee welcomed attendees to reach out to her at Propel HR.

Resources referenced during the session:


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