Making Lemonade from the Lemons of These Uncertain Times

20 April 2020 Blog
Authors: Christopher G. Ward
Published To: Coronavirus Resource Center:Back to Business Labor & Employment Law Perspectives

Much like everyone these days, for employment law counselors and human resources personnel, our worlds, responsibilities and challenges – as well as those of our clients and companies – are rapidly evolving in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the bevy of new considerations suddenly at the fore. 

We continue dealing with all of the same sorts of compliance, benefits and policy administration duties we have always had.   But now, we now suddenly also work to understand and apply hastily assembled paid and unpaid leave laws, answer questions about unemployment eligibility and, unfortunately for many of us, participate in job elimination and work reduction decisions.  All the while, many of us are doing so outside of our typical office environments, physically away from our colleagues and work support systems.

These are surreal times, and while we try to remain optimistic about a coming re-emergence, it is understandable that many of us feel trepidation in this uncertain moment.  Whether we are executives charged with leading our organizations through tumultuous seas, professionals charged with advising and communicating about job losses, or individuals who have temporarily and permanently lost jobs, it is hard not to feel the human and emotional toll these trying times have created.  Such circumstances can and do have an intangible but no-less real impact on employment-related risks.

I strongly believe in the adage that every time a door closes, others open up.  And even though I am not immune to personal struggle and worry, right now as an advisor, I am actively watching for these newly opened doors and for our clients’ opportunities to walk through them. Increasing cultural alignment with growing social awareness regarding mental health, wellness and individual humanity is one such opportunity that organizations can address, particularly in times of adversity.

Increased organizational engagement can come much more easily during prosperous times, filled with employee bonuses, rewarding compensation, and high levels of job satisfaction.  When cost cutting becomes necessary, however, and the reduction-in-force specter is palpable, fear and concern become serious impediments to engagement.  With such crisis-type moments comes fertile ground to speak to peoples’ emotions and their humanity, communicating an organizational value that such human concerns matter as much as profit and loss statements.  While facing unprecedented challenges, organizations also can find great opportunity to plant thought seeds with employees that their personal success and career opportunity are part of the business plan and are key contributors to long-term profitability.

I am not suggesting that difficult messages be sugarcoated or that false positive narratives dress up current realities.  Many such difficult messages are necessary at the moment, and salary reductions, furloughs and layoffs have already been and will remain unfortunate exigencies.  But a communication plan that is honest and direct and that genuinely acknowledges employees’ humanity, worry and sacrifice can set a stage where other corporate action (such as executives voluntarily reducing their compensation or employers offering more generous severance benefits than policy dictates) garners appreciation and respect. 

While it would be unrealistic to think all employees will react positively to well-delivered bad news, it’s not unrealistic to expect that words backed up by action will create meaningful engagement impacts for many.  Such impacts, and an organization’s decision to nurture them intentionally, can fertilize the employer’s brand and culture, perhaps allowing for greater engagement and employee productivity at a future time, when the winds have reverted to gentle tailwinds of economic growth and profitability.

It is fair to wonder, in the face of these admittedly “kumbaya” paragraphs above, why I am writing about organizational engagement in a forum designed for the exploration of legal compliance and risk management rests.  While it escapes hard data and tracking metrics, this author, with many years representing employers across industries, can identify clear parallels between organizational culture and the volume of employment-related litigation risk an employer has.  Companies that invest in their people as much as they invest in their operations appear to enjoy a good will/engagement factor that I believe impacts the amount of demand letters, federal and state administrative charges, and litigation they face.  My personal and professional opinion is that a not-insignificant correlation exists between employee engagement and employment-related legal risk management and the financial costs necessary to manage, mitigate and resolve such risks.

So when possible, as you work on behalf of your organization to sail these stormy seas, making and executing difficult decisions that have obvious human tolls, consider where and how lemonade can be made from lemons.  It may be that bad news cannot be avoided, but the delivery of and actions behind bad news can generate future value.  If you accept the notion that employees are more likely to invest themselves where they feel at home and can identify with their employers’ values and culture, then nurturing those values and culture to embrace employee wellness, mindfulness, mental health and humanity can have positive impacts on future bottom lines.

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