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APRIL 13, 2020 (TLNT) — For many small and mid-sized businesses, the past few weeks have been frightening, challenging, and uncertain. COVID-19 has necessitated drastic measures to slow its spread. Employers and their employees have felt that pain and had to make difficult decisions in response — from reducing hours of operation to layoffs and furloughs to closing their doors.

One of the untold stories of this crisis, however, has been the care, compassion, and courage with which many businesses have sought to support their employees. In the process, the role of HR has never been more important. Whether it be uniting and galvanizing a team in new, virtual ways, understanding the legislation being passed in response to the pandemic, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or simply keeping employees safe, HR is front and center in navigating the current crisis.

Below are seven ways small and mid-sized business owners and leaders can continue to support their teams, foster trust and collaboration, and remain in compliance during these trying times.

  1. Communicate honestly and openly with employees. It can be tempting to shelter employees from fears and risks, especially since high stress has been shown to destroy trust and inhibit empathy. But it’s likely your employees are already thinking about the issues keeping you up at night. The foundation for an engaged, empathetic, and emotionally supported workforce is trust, in both leadership and one another. Invest the time in keeping employees informed and connected.
  2. Invite employees into the challenge. Surviving during a crisis requires creative and innovative thinking, as well as a willingness on the part of everyone to rise to the occasion. Focus your team on the purpose of your company’s work and the challenges ahead, and invite employees to seek new ways to contribute to the mission of the company, deliver its values, and achieve its strategic objectives. If your employees are invested in your culture, company, and mission, they will respond.
  3. Practice “open-source HR.” One of the unique aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is how broadly it has affected employers. Reach out (virtually) to other business and HR leaders in the community, perhaps through social media groups or by hosting virtual chats. Other business leaders are likely facing similar challenges as you, and they may have experiences, tools, and practices to share. To modify an expression by Thomas Merton, no team is an island. Every business is part of a larger ecosystem, and now is the time to bring the ecosystem together and foster rapid collaboration.
  4. Pay close attention to the new legislation that is being passed in response to COVID-19. Laws like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, New York’s paid sick leave for COVID-19, and Colorado’s emergency rules for paid sick leave are important efforts to help employees who have lost pay and work, but they also bring new compliance requirements to employers. Identify a mailing list or other resource that can help you stay current on the laws that affect your business.
  5. Protect against any semblance of discrimination. During periods of significant change, it’s important to make sure that any actions taken with respect to employees do not discriminate or appear to discriminate based on an employee’s protected class. There are legitimate business reasons for treating groups of employees differently. Not everyone in an organization may have a job that can be done from home. Some employees might be furloughed while others continue to work. Whatever the case, it’s important that businesses act upon and document legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for these decisions.
  6. Manage your employees holistically. Employees working from home may have additional distractions or disruptions they’re not used to managing during the workday. It’s also possible that employees or their family members are experiencing distressing financial or health-related circumstances. Prioritize the health of not only your employees, but also their support network. If an employee is sick, give them time to get well and forego asking for a doctor’s note (health care professionals are already overwhelmed). Employers shouldn’t lower their standards for employee performance — that can also have a negative impact. But a little flexibility can have a big impact on employee wellbeing, commitment, and contribution.
  7. Understand limitations on privacy. If you need to have a difficult conversation with an employee, such as to notify them of a layoff or furlough, keep in mind that if they are working from home, the conversation may not be a private one. There may be a child, spouse, or roommate in the room with them, which can make it challenging for the employee to process the information and communicate openly. Give your employees space and time to absorb the information and offer a follow-up call if appropriate.

As this crisis unfolds, it’s more important than ever that employers and employees support each other and work together to keep themselves and their communities healthy. Small and mid-sized businesses are experiencing some of the biggest challenges, but also have some of the most important strengths in navigating crises like this one, including the ability to adapt quickly and build personal, high-trust relationships with their employees. These employers can lead the way by elevating their employees and strengthening their teams. That’s what HR is all about, and it’s as important now as ever.