The Human Resources ‘War Room’

The coronavirus pandemic has become a seminal moment for many CHROs, whose role is all too critical in this crisis.

The executive management team of a major food supplier is huddled in the conference room for another all-hands meeting. It’s a critical infrastructure company that can’t shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak, so executives are being updated on food safety measures, supply chain operations, employee health, and labor needs, as well as being given guidelines on how to communicate the latest developments to managers and team leaders. Leading the meeting isn’t the CEO, the chief operating officer, or even the chief financial officer. It’s the CHRO.

Welcome to the new HR-led war room. Similar to how the financial crash elevated the CFO position and digital disruption has raised the profile of the chief information officer, the current outbreak is a seminal moment in the evolution of the chief human resources officer role. Or as Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice, puts it, “This is a human crisis, and CHROs are the ones leading organizations through it.”

Though the CHRO position has steadily increased in importance over the years—particularly as the labor market tightened and organizations sought talent with new skills to help transition to digital—it traditionally hasn’t gotten credit for driving business results. But most experts say that while all C-suite leaders are playing a big part in handling the crisis, the CHRO has to be pushed into the forefront of the C-suit for companies to survive these brutal times.

It was CHROs, for example, who were tasked with helping coordinate organizations through the entire first wave of the outbreak, making sure employees were safe, setting them up to work from home, and acclimating leaders to the nuances of virtual management. As financial losses mount and share prices drop, CHROs are also leading strategic workforce planning and business continuity briefings. At the same time, they are monitoring employee engagement and morale, and even taking calls from employees asking for advice on what they should do if they may have contracted the coronavirus. Put another way, at any given moment CHROs are playing physician, therapist, benefits counselor, and strategist, among other roles.

Paul Viola, an executive recruiter with Korn Ferry, says that as the stewards of all people-related initiatives, it’s imperative during this time for CHROs to have the standing and wherewithal to provide a dissenting voice in the war room if a short-term decision could negatively affect the organization’s brand, culture, or purpose long-term. Consider, for instance, the optics of an organization taking government relief at the same time it announces furloughing or laying off employees. “The CHRO needs to be a guide for finding a balance between company performance, its bottom line, and impact on employees,” says Viola. The CEO, in turn, must have an appreciation for the CHRO’s perspective on how decisions made now will affect the organization’s ability to attract and retain talent in the future.

Or the ability to attract and retain talent right now. For some organizations, demand has surged as a result of the outbreak, causing a need to hire and onboard talent in a hurry. For others that aren’t in a position to hire now, talent will remember how they were treated once the outbreak fades and business returns to a semblance of normalcy, says Viola.

“In the war room,” he says, “the CHRO is the driving force for holding the organization’s other leaders accountable to its brand and purpose.”