Some businesses have remained operational throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them, like grocery stores and pharmacies, are obviously essential, while other businesses, like food delivery services, were thrust into being essential because of sweeping stay-at-home orders. Almost overnight, these companies’ human resources departments needed to bring seamless collaboration and oversight across the entire organization and protect employee and customer safety like never before.
This month, EBI’s Jennifer Gladstone is exploring how HR specialists are responding to the pandemic with a 4-part roundtable series, ‘Helping your HR Staff Survive COVID-19’. Part 1 and Part 2 are available here. In Thursday’s Part 3, you’ll hear from Steve Brown, Vice President of Human Resources for a Midwest pizza chain, and member of the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) Board of Directors. Brown will share how his company has kept its doors open throughout the pandemic, while protecting the health, wellbeing, and morale of its frontline employees.
Engaging in one-on-one people management was especially important in keeping employees happy during this time. And there are compelling reasons why HR departments should focus on this powerful tool, pandemic or not.
The Organizational Curve
Since children around the country are heading back to school, let’s hit the classroom, too. Remember the term “grading on a curve”? This is a bell curve method a teacher can use to adjust the scores students receive on a test. In a normal distribution model, the bulk of the students score in the middle of the curve, and everyone benefits with a final grade that is boosted a few percentage points higher.
Every so often, though, someone comes along and is accused of “throwing off the curve”. This happens when one student scores exceptionally high while most students receive average marks. The result is scores that only slightly improve for the majority, leaving most of them grumpy.
This analogy is kind of like enacting over-arching policies across an organization to maintain control. When you issue comprehensive policies, you are most likely addressing the exceptions that fall outside the norm. So, one person’s behavior shapes how an entire group is viewed. In other words, everyone suffers because one person in the organization “threw off the curve”.
Why Policies Don’t Work
People want to do good work and perform. Policies fail to stimulate that type of work culture because they make employees feel they’re being policed. Employees feel confined to conform and comply with policies, when they could be using that energy to drive their own performance, output, and creativity. The entire ecosystem suffers when employees and managers are stifled by rigid policies.
When a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic erupts, it’s normal to want to retain a sense of control by reacting with sweeping policies. But what you actually do is make the curve so small everyone feels like an outlier. Employees who are already dealing with additional home and health stresses now feel disengaged and pessimistic about the very place they used to go to get a sense of self-worth and happiness.
Why Parameters DO Work
HR can avoid creating a chasm in company culture by giving people parameters to work within, instead of policies. Parameters act as flexible and agile guidelines so employees can find ways to deliver their best efforts and their best selves when they clock in. Parameters give employees a certain level of responsibility and reinforce an employer’s trust in their ability to get the job done. It comes down to trust. We don’t know of a single great company culture that isn’t built on trust.
Parameters have an additional benefit for organizations, and the HR specialists whose job it is to work closely with employees. Parameters allow specialists to practice HR one-on-one and case-by-case. Parameters encourage HR to treat employees as responsible, trustworthy individuals who want to succeed and who want their employer to succeed, but who may need some coaching to do so. Parameters assume positive, rather than negative, intent.
Coach to Culture
Notice we didn’t say discipline. Using the term ‘coaching’ and successfully implementing it, is an important distinction in setting parameters that bolster your company culture, instead of crippling employees under it.
When an employee wanders outside of your policy, what is your first instinct? If it’s to immediately turn to page whatever in your discipline manual, you’ve already prioritized conformity over culture. Jumping straight to discipline dehumanizes the entire process. The employee is no longer an individual, and the HR specialist assigned to their case has been stripped of the ability to find a solution that might be in the best interest of the business and the employee.
Let’s try re-phrasing this question.
When an employee wanders outside of your parameters, what is your first instinct? If it’s to investigate with active listening, practice empathy, and coach them up instead of trying to “correct” them through discipline, you may find they’re willing to go above and beyond after the matter is resolved. Talk about building trust and loyalty. When HR is empowered to treat people on a case-by-case basis, specialists and employees both learn there are many ways to do the right thing.
However, if coaching doesn’t work and a person continues to work outside performance parameters, you may have to address that situation more firmly. That employee simply was never going to fit in the curve anyway.
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