Why leaders need to check their blind spots when navigating workplace issues in the wake of COVID-19

By Laura Williams

It’s difficult to recall a situation as unique as the current one, when executives were asked to pay such close attention to HR and employment law details across their organizations. As many businesses commence or continue their physical return to the workplace in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns—and children head back to school with hopeful parents crossing their fingers that the process will go smoothly—many executives are finding themselves directly involved in re-calibrating and re-engaging their workforces on a greater scale than ever before.

The reason is not only the obvious: that we’re only now (tentatively) emerging from the worst of the most disruptive public health, social and economic crisis of the past century. Employers, even though they may be hopeful that the worst effects of the pandemic are behind us, are also having to prepare for the possibility that a fall/winter coronavirus second wave could send us back to square one and into a renewed lockdown. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again across Canada, taking proactive steps to be prepared for all eventualities is critical.

While organizations have been keenly focused on dealing with the direct effects COVID-19 has had on how they do business, it’s crucial that executives identify any blind spots that present significant but less obvious challenges. Addressing these potential issues proactively before problems arise will help organizations navigate the precarious situation in which many still find themselves.

One of the less-discussed challenges many organizations are facing are the impacts that the pandemic has had on employee morale at all levels of the organization.

Anxieties are running high, some employees’ personal finances have been stretched to the limit, as have their employers’ balance sheets. Business leaders are being forced to understand and manage through a mental-health crisis running in parallel with the acute physical one caused by COVID-19; some employees are struggling with the idea of returning to the workplace altogether. Those same bosses are compelled to speak out on issues of racial inequality and injustice in the wake of transformative moments such as the death of George Floyd and other high-profile incidents of alleged police misconduct, often without sufficient strategic tailoring of the message to their own business realities—which can cause more harm than good to the organization’s brand. Many lack the training to juggle the demands of running a business, while showing sensitivity to complex social issues and keeping traumatized employees as productive as possible.

Through it all many employers are having to ask workers to work harder than ever to restore their organizations’ bottom-line performance, in particular across industries that have been battered by the pandemic recession—think travel, retail or hospitality.

Given the general anxiety and stress many people are experiencing, incidents of improper conduct on the part of employees, and sometimes even management, are much more likely to occur. Employers should keep in mind that issues such as workplace harassment or bullying are more common where employees are under pressure, increasing risk and liability for the organization and potentially leading to a variety of consequences, from employee turnover to culture challenges.

As most employers know, the law with respect to human resources matters is ever evolving, and well-intentioned employers can easily slip up in ensuring that all their many obligations are met. Today’s executives should ensure that their organization is well-acquainted with the employment standards and occupational health and safety requirements applicable to their workplace. Obligations should be revisited to ensure that the organization is meeting all requirements based on its current workplace reality—have newly-established home office arrangements been reviewed to ensure that health and safety requirements (which extend to work from home) are still being met? How is employees’ time being tracked when working from home to ensure that they’re not working unexpected amounts of overtime?

Employers across various industries have also had to manage numerous requests for leaves and work refusals from employees who may not feel safe coming to work—whether because they are concerned about the measures the employer implemented (or more often the lack thereof), because of childcare/eldercare obligations or, for low-income earners, because the emergency benefits offered by the government provide a more attractive alternative than commuting to and attending work.

A significant number of parents across the country have opted for remote learning for their kids, where available, at least for the first half of the academic year. In many cases, they will require greater workplace flexibility, request permission to continue working from home, or extended time off work. Employers in Ontario, for example, are required to protect employees from discrimination in the workplace based on protected grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code. That obligation extends to accommodating employees who are limited in their ability to perform workplace duties as a result of one of those protected grounds, to the point of undue hardship—and the protected grounds include family status. Businesses that fail to accommodate could face potential human rights complaints or lawsuits.

Additionally, with governments across jurisdictions having introduced new leaves for employees affected by COVID-19, some of which are quite broad and prohibit the employer from requesting medical information, employers may find that employees have greater entitlements to time off work than they may initially expect.

Despite the many challenges organizations are facing and will likely be grappling with for some time, there is both hope and opportunity for business executives.

Hope, because there is a chance that we never see another COVID-related lockdown again; that as the virus flares regionally, it can be stamped out and most businesses can carry on, even at limited capacity, with their workforces mostly unaffected. Hope that we can finish out this year and move into 2021 and that a vaccine will be developed that protects us from future outbreaks. And opportunity that we can use what we have learned about our workplaces and workflows to quell disruptions, optimize staffing levels and innovate on the product and service front to create stronger organizations better able to compete and weather future black swan events such as this one.

Getting there requires synergy between HR departments and senior leaders. People-management success will mean sustaining strong communications with staff and keeping them apprised of the organization’s strategic plans to reinvigorate the workplace, conducting thorough (and regular) assessments of health and safety and employment standards risk, and finding ways to proactively meet various legal obligations—including employee accommodation needs.

As incidents arise, leaders will have to meet their obligations to investigate allegations of workplace misconduct, such as harassment, then detail the process, report back to all parties involved in the matter and take action in a fair and prudent manner based on the findings. That could require disciplinary measures or termination. As a best practice, consult with legal counsel and experienced HR personnel to ensure that your organization avoids liability.

Organizations will need to develop (or revise) effective and legally-compliant workplace policies and procedures that reflect new business and workplace realities, and set conduct and performance expectations—while ensuring that both are consistently upheld.

Achieving those lofty goals will require comprehensive leadership training—senior leaders and managers may not have sufficient training to handle the unprecedented leadership demands placed upon them in the months ahead.

Perhaps most importantly, leaders will need (and should be encouraged by upper management) to display empathy to employees, to work to understand their challenges and to have viable solutions to help staff cope with new workplace stressors. Flexibility—leveraged in a realistic, customized way based on each organization’s needs—will be critical to making the coronavirus recovery phase a success for employees and employers alike. Proactive strategic planning and implementation is the ideal way to reduce HR and legal costs, mitigate risk and make our workplaces successful – for everyone – as the new business normal continues to emerge.

Laura has over two decades of experience providing advice and representation as an HR Lawyer. As an entrepreneur, Laura has built two highly respected firms which respectively provide proactive HR law and HR consulting advice designed to minimize workplace law challenges, maximize employee engagement and boost bottom line performance. Laura is also a seasoned workplace investigator, routinely engaged to conduct complex workplace investigations, and is recognized for specific expertise in investigations related to equity, diversity and inclusion. As a Certified Speaking Professional, Laura regularly delivers keynote talks on topics relevant to entrepreneurs, business leaders, HR professionals and lawyers. Laura has recently launched a podcast for business leaders and HR Professionals called, We Thrive Forward – Conversations with Laura Williams which is available on all major platforms.