April 1, 2020

How three HR leaders are navigating through a global health crisis

At Ceridian’s Virtual HCM Executive Summit, HR leaders from Allianz Global Investors, Builders FirstSource, and SHRM discuss how they are stepping up to lead employees and communities through the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the recent Ceridian Virtual HCM Executive Summit, Tom Cielak, VP of HR Operations at Allianz Global Investors, Sean Sullivan, CHRO at SHRM, and John Foley, VP of HR at Builders FirstSource spoke to over 500 attendees about their strategies for leadership during a global health crisis. From their experiences, four key areas emerged for other leaders to take note of as they navigate through uncertain times.

Demonstrate resilience and calm, stable leadership

“Everyone is scared for their families' health and safety, their personal health and safety, and their job prospects. Providing a sense of calm and stability to all our employees is critical,” said Builders FirstSource’s John Foley of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Foley said that after what seemed like weeks of bad news, he had woken up on the previous Sunday and thought to himself, “We're going to flip it. We're going to turn tragedy into triumph. This is a fantastic opportunity to lead.”

Foley said that while he doesn’t know whether the current situation is a sprint, or a marathon, or a combination of both, with many unsure as to how long the pandemic will last, it is important now more than ever for leaders to be resilient.

Allianz’s Tom Cielak had similar thoughts about calm leadership. He said he and his team are working diligently to ensure that their employees will get paid twice a month and have consistent access to their benefits.

“The environment isn’t business as usual, but from an HR operations perspective, I want to make sure that we are business as usual.” - Tom Cielak, VP of HR Operations, Allianz Global Investors

Communicate consistently with employees, the community, and key stakeholders

With so much uncertainty around how and when things might return to normal, Foley, Cielak, and SHRM’s Sean Sullivan agreed that communication with employees and the community has been key.

Sullivan highlighted how SHRM has facilitated communication within its community of over 300,000 members and 420 employees. The company has ramped up its network architecture and website content related to COVID-19 to ensure they are contributing to keeping people up to date on the latest news and recommendations. “Our Knowledge Advisor Center saw over 20,000 calls last week alone of people seeking answers and help around COVID-19,” said Sullivan.

As added perspective on SHRM’s impact in the HR world, they also hosted a webinar with Jay C. Butler, MD, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on March 10th, which had over 40,000 attendees.

From an employee perspective, Foley added that he is an advocate of communicating authentically, and often. Builders FirstSource has set a daily cadence for communication, given how quickly things are developing and changing.

“Nothing moves faster than rumors. Try and stay ahead of the rumors, do daily check-ins with your tele-commuters, and provide advice and guidance. Remind them that what they're doing is making a difference. Remind them that they're tied into the big picture,” Foley advised.

Embrace flexibility

In just a few months, companies and their workforces have had to make drastic changes to the way they operate in order to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This has shown that flexibility and adaptability are invaluable.

Leaders need to be creative and find ways to keep lines of communication open with their employees, while maintaining a human touch in times of crisis.

“This is now, more than ever, time to be human and be resourceful. What I mean by that is even though we're in a telework situation, we want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to reach out, check in on each other, take care of each other.” - Sean Sullivan, CHRO, SHRM

Foley mentioned that although Builders FirstSource made the decision to go virtual with all of its office positions, it has had zero impact on productivity. The company has also changed entitlement policies for vacation time, given that school districts are closing, and parents need flexibility for childcare. “Employees can now borrow up to 80 hours of vacation time. We've had thousands of people submit for that extra time already,” he said.

Cielak pointed out that there is also a need to rethink the work that is happening internally, and which projects are critical to the operation of the business in the current climate. This presents an opportunity to find different ways to leverage the skills of the existing workforce.

“We do need to prioritize, especially during this time. There are going to be certain projects that need to be put on hold, and we want to make sure that we prioritize exactly what is mission critical throughout the organization. Some people right now that are not in mission critical roles can utilize their skills to help out in other areas that are critical,” explained Cielak.

Support the community and lead by example

One clear takeaway from all three leaders is that the importance of making a difference in communities during the COVID-19 crisis cannot be understated.

“We feel it's really important that we lead by example. [If there’s] any way that we can contribute in some impactful manner for the local community, it’s an important stake to put in the ground,” says Sullivan.

Given how dire the current blood supply situation is across the U.S., SHRM is working with a local American Red Cross chapter in northern Virginia to set up a blood donation drive for SHRM employees and their families.

They are also advocating across a number of government platforms to ensure that the best interests of both workers and workplaces are considered.

“Over the last two weeks, we reached out to the Department of Homeland Security here in the U.S., to ask for a relaxation of some rules around the I-9 employment verification process,” said Sullivan. “We suggested they relax the physical inspection requirement of the documents that new hires have to provide given the extraordinary situations that we find ourselves in. On March 20th, DHS announced that they were relaxing those requirements, and that was something that we're pleased to see get accomplished because it helps people adapt in this time of extraordinary circumstances.”

Foley concluded by talking about how all leaders are in the same position of uncertainty with COVID-19. “We're all making this up as we go. The last time this happened was [during the Spanish flu] 102 years ago.”

His advice is to lean on each other more for advice and best-practices – especially with regards to HR.

“People are people. A 401(k) is a 401(k). It doesn't matter what industry you are in. So, reach out to peers, learn from other industries as well,” says Foley.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to lead, and it's a great time to be in HR. I'm an optimist – we're all going to get through this.” - John Foley, VP of HR, Builders FirstSource

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