Why HR Needs Some Extra Attention From Leaders Now

Human resources staffers have been called on to handle a host of new challenges during the pandemic. Without leaders' support, they're more likely to move on.

The past two years have given association leaders a lot to handle: a pandemic, more social-justice conversations, challenging new dynamics for hiring and retention. These are all workplace matters, but at their root, they’re emotional conversations, dealing with intense feelings that workers are experiencing about their work, health, and identity. And though those things influence how leaders lead, when they become difficult, they tend to wind up in one place: human resources.

HR staffers are often thrust in the role of “toxin handler,” as researchers Tamara Schult and Charles Gray put in an article last week for the Society for Human Resource Management. HR is on the front line for everything unpleasant that happens in the workplace: “layoffs, complaints, mergers, conflicts between managers and employees, employees’ personal situations, or undesirable news.”

CEOs do need to be more hands-on with HR issues.

And that’s on a normal day. More recently, HR staffs have also been asked to help staff navigate hot-button issues around COVID-19 and social justice. As HR consultant Lars Schmidt wrote last week at Fast Company, the past 20 months have seen the chief people officer become the chief pandemic officers.

And it’s taking a toll. Schmidt points to one recent PwC study reporting that 71 percent of chief human resources officers (CHROs) say investment in HR is a challenge. Another found that nearly half of HR officers surveyed changed jobs during the pandemic, and that “only 22 percent had no interest in leaving their current organization.”

Plainly, CEOs have some toxins here to handle themselves. Schmidt argues that CEOs do need to be more hands-on with HR issues. As HR professional Cindy Gordon tells him, “If you’re just looking for me to fill the void … we’ve actually already lost the game because that is fundamentally part of the CEO’s responsibility.”

Part of that responsibility, Schult and Gray write, is to ensure that their HR staffers are taking care of themselves as much as the rest of the staff. They quote one HR professional: “The toxin handler needs to be willing to accept the same help they offer to the employees. There need to be employee assistance programs that specifically work in this area.”

More practically, CEOs should make sure that their compensation for HR professionals is in line with the high-demand, complex profession it’s become. Part of the reason for all that job mobility among HR staffers is that they have a new wealth of options: HR openings spiked 87 percent in the past year, according to Indeed, and many companies are retooling their HR operations to better address the new challenges the department faces.

And as quality HR leaders become more in demand, they’re in a position to make more demands of leadership. According to the PwC survey, CHROs they want to see leaders demonstrate inclusivity and a smart approach to hybrid workplaces. “Create a work environment where people feel valued and can be themselves, with leaders who are empathetic and provide equal opportunities and resources to everyone, and they’re less likely to want to leave,” according to the survey.

It’s not just hybrid smarts they want: They PwC survey notes that “addressing employee mental health, well-being, and burnout” is also a key priority. And if it’s important to the HR department, the least a CEO can do is take it seriously as well.

How has your HR department’s role changed in the past 20 months, and what have you done to change how the department is supported? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Andrii Yalanskyi/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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