Barbie Winterbottom of BIC Graphic on how HR can lead during the coronavirus pandemic

Apr 22, 2020 - Joe Matar

The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for HR to demonstrate to executives and employees the incredible value they bring to an organization.

  • “It's important for companies to understand the way we treat our employees today through this process is going to dictate the culture of your organization when this crisis is over,” says Barbie Winterbottom, Chief People Officer at BIC Graphic.
  • Now is a critical time for HR to demonstrate to executives the value we bring to a company and why we deserve a seat at the table.
  • It’s OK to admit when you don’t have answers, as long as you listen to the questions and commit to learning what you can and sharing it when you do.

As we face rapid changes to the world and economy around us due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s more important than ever for HR to have a seat at the executive table and ensure companies are meeting the needs of their people.

Barbie Winterbottom, Chief People Officer at BIC Graphic, likens this time to the ‘08 financial crisis. Then, we turned to CFOs to manage companies’ financial pains, and now we need HR executives to manage COVID-19’s impact on a company’s people.

“Everything having to do with COVID-19 is impacting our people,” she says in our interview for Talent on the Rise. “And if we're not there, taking the helm and really having a strong voice, we're missing an opportunity to really show why we exist.”

Check out the full episode on your favorite podcast app:

Barbie shared how HR leaders can shine in this crisis, meaningful ways to support employees and tips for stepping up to help a company weather the uncertainty and come out strong on the other side.

Find opportunities amid the crisis

Amid any crisis, the best leaders find the silver linings, opportunities to come out better than you came in.

Barbie says HR teams are positioned to recognize ways to turn the challenges facing your company into growth opportunities for your employees. You can:

  • Make efforts to recognize the talent on your team
  • Notice broken processes that didn’t surface until they faced this pressure
  • Encourage and support people to step into roles that didn’t exist before
  • Work more closely across departments to understand the needs of other teams

“I have had to reassign work for my own team,” Barbie explains. “We're not actively hiring right now, so I have TA people who need to pivot and jump in full force to help other areas of the business, and that's what they're doing.”

Focus on what people need, not just what the company needs

No role is more vital in a company than HR when the health and livelihood of employees is uncertain. They need clear communication and resources that will help them navigate things like disruptions to their work, layoffs and furloughs and questions about the company’s financial health.

At BIC, Barbie says, “We've tried to really support our folks in multiple dimensions, knowing that most of us have never been through anything like this before. It really is a new experience, but we can still be there for one another.”

She shares these examples of ways her team is supporting people at BIC:

  • Building a COVID-19 hub with information about the pandemic and what it means for them
  • Building a work-from-home hub with resources to help office workers transition to remote work, and caring for or homeschool children while working
  • Building a layoff and furlough portal to list open job opportunities and fairs to help people who need to make money right now
  • Sharing a good news story daily
  • Sharing leadership tips and tricks to help those leading people who for the first time are not working in the same space
  • Running weekly town halls through Zoom, where the executive team answers questions directly from employees
  • Communicating to candidates in the pipeline that the company is still interested, but has paused the hiring process for now

Each of these steps Barbie attributes to her team’s people-first philosophy and approach. Consider the questions and fears your people probably have and develop resources and steps to address them.

“We don't hang our humanity at the door when we walk into work,” she says. “We are whole people. We have to respect that and treat one another that way, and we can't leave that behind just because we're now in crisis mode.”

Expect employees to be self-sufficient, too

Yes, it’s an important time for everyone in a company, HR in particular, to be compassionate and empathetic. But you can only guide employees so far before you have to leave it up to them to utilize resources and step up to the challenges they face.

Whether in the midst of a crisis or not, Barbie says, “We are essentially giving them the path, and it is up to them whether or not they choose to adapt or be left behind.”

That’s for the good of the individual and the company. Hand-holding doesn’t help employees grow, and it eats up time you could spend on valuable strategic work to contribute to the company’s bottom line. 

If you or other leadership in the company haven’t supported employee development and autonomy in the past, this could be a rough time. But, Barbie warns, “you have to have the courage to force folks to be self sufficient. Don't buckle under the pressure of this crisis and create even more bad behaviors.”

Again looking for the opportunity among the challenges, take advantage of this moment when everyone is stepping up to support others and filling unexpected roles to help employees see how much they’re actually capable of accomplishing.

Admit things are uncertain

Projections, legislation, government orders, client and customer needs — everything is changing from moment to moment, and everyone is trying to figure out the best way to proceed each day.

It’s OK to admit to your people that you don’t have all the answers. In fact, if you don’t know an answer, that’s the best thing you can do for your people right now.

“The best way to weather this storm and have your people come out in as positive a space as possible is to be transparent with them,” says Barbie. “Be authentic in your messaging.”

Don’t ignore questions you can’t answer, and don’t lie to — or mislead — people. Instead, let them know when you don’t know an answer, what you’re going to do to find the answer and how long they can expect to wait to get it from you.

This helps manage the stress and uncertainty among your employees, and it’s important for maintaining the integrity of your company culture after the crisis subsides.

Barbie points out, “The folks who may not have options today are going to have abundant options when we get to the other side of this. And if we have abandoned our values as an organization…they're not going to forget. They will remember how we behaved.”

Be cognizant of your employer brand

You might feel like you’ve got so many fires to put out right now that employer branding is the last thing worth thinking about. But that’s actually the opposite of the truth.

Many people think of employer branding as just the commercials, billboards and online ads a recruitment marketing team puts out. But, Barbie says, an employer brand also exists within every interaction your company has with employees and candidates.

“It's the reality that a person lives in connection to your organization,” she says. “You may be the organization to that individual; that email might be all they've ever seen from the organization.”

How your company handles a crisis — and treats employees in the midst of it — is your employer brand right now.

“I always ask myself: A year from now, if I look back on what we did, am I going to be proud of the work we did?” Barbie says. “And if the answer's yes, then we're on the right path.”

This article is based on an episode of Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. Subscribe in your preferred podcast app.