The last week of March 2020 has to be one of the most professionally challenging weeks of my HR career to date. Faced with a global pandemic, many of us in the UK were subject to government restrictions – limiting the types of business that could operate and the extent to which individuals could leave their homes – for the first time in our lives. Aware of the impact of Covid-19 on other countries such as China and Italy, there was a great deal of fear about what was to come.
In response to the ever-changing situation, businesses were having to take operational decisions rapidly. HR professionals were trying to provide expert advice on the people implications of the virus and the associated restrictions, along with the much-welcomed support package offered to businesses by the government. Without legislation or clear guidance, we used all of our networking and research skills and past experience to try to understand and interpret the situation to help inform these business decisions.
As a freelance HR manager, I work with clients from many sectors and each was grappling with a different set of issues. Small hospitality businesses, having been ordered to shut with little notice, were left wondering how to support staff during this time and whether they would have a business on the other side of the pandemic. Clients involved in the provision of healthcare – all charities – were trying desperately to source PPE and navigate the challenges of stepping up to provide extra support to the NHS where they could and keeping their frontline employees safe. All while acutely aware that the abrupt halt to all fundraising activities would effectively sever their income streams and have a devastating impact on both cash flow and future sustainability.
Finally, businesses that were neither ordered to close nor classed as essential services were also trying to do the right thing. At their daily press conferences, government representatives were adamant the guidance relating to leaving home to attend work was ‘crystal clear’. But that’s not how I and many of my clients, associates and friends felt. On one hand, there was a growing sense of fear on the part of some employees who felt they were being forced to disregard the government’s stay at home message to attend a workplace that was not providing an essential service. On the other hand, there were growing messages to the business community from the government that they should continue to operate where necessary.
As humans, we all have our own values and morals, and these also informed our thoughts and decisions. I have a rule-following personality and so when the government says ‘you should’, I hear ‘you must’. However, over that week I became increasingly aware that there were others who heard the same government’s words entirely differently.
As with anything, there will always be a minority who want to take advantage of a situation for their own agenda. Big names such as Sports Direct and Wetherspoons were vilified in the press for being seen to put profit ahead of public safety, and for their poor treatment of workers. Without knowing the full facts, it is impossible to judge the actions of employers such as these. My experience tells me business leaders were simply trying to make extremely tough and unprecedented decisions in ridiculously short timescales and often without a complete picture – mindful of doing their bit to contribute to slowing the spread of the virus, but also conscious that the current and future livelihoods of themselves and their workers could be affected by a decision to temporarily close the doors.
Often seen as the moral compass of an organisation, I have no doubt that people professionals were, as I was, acting as a critical friend to business leaders at this time, posing questions to try to encourage informed decisions that balanced employee and public safety with business need, such as: are you sure that employee can’t work from home? Can you truly ensure that social distancing measures can be accommodated within the workplace?
Around this time, I couldn’t help reflect on the recent #BeKind movement – the social media campaign born out of the tragic suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack. With this in mind, while it may be the case that some businesses did not act in line with our own moral code or that of wider society, perhaps we should try to be a little less judgemental and recognise the monumentally unusual times we find ourselves in.
Melanie Taylor is director of M Taylor Associates