The Doctor Is in the House

Experts say a new executive role may be needed to navigate all the health challenges created by the pandemic.

It has been a less-than-ideal system. Firms, since the start of the pandemic, have been forced to make a host of decisions on employee and customer health based on government or news reports. Which is why some organizations have decided to do what most of us have done since our first childhood cold:  call for a doctor. 

In a move that many consider essential but may also add to crowding within the top leadership circle, organizations are looking at establishing a new role of chief health and safety officer (CHSO). To be sure, the job duties are still being defined, but the role is emerging as many firms take the delicate step of reopening operations and offices that require a significant health-safety balancing act. 

“Companies right now are either operating blind or relying on the same information that employees are,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice. A chief health and safety officer, he adds, can make better recommendations and look at the broader public health picture. “Having a chief medical director can be a huge differentiator," Kaplan says.

When the outbreak first hit early last spring, most organizations pulled executives from other top positions to navigate the crisis—including how to handle its impact on the health of employees and consumers. The heads of human resources, regional vice presidents, and even CEOs themselves have had to quickly become de facto COVID-19 experts to field the onslaught of issues that have arisen and keep their businesses afloat. But, experts say, this is a temporary approach to what is sure to be a long-term problem. “This is something that now requires attention on an ongoing basis,” says Mindy Kairey, managing director of Korn Ferry’s Global Healthcare Services practice.

Kairey says the role of evaluating a firm’s commitment to cleanliness and the healthcare of the workforce would be placed with an individual responding from “a clinical, operational perspective.” And while the focus would be on COVID for perhaps years as a vaccine is developed, proponents of the job believe the CHSO would be needed down the road for a host of challenges firms will face on safety protocols and preventive health measures. 

Though no past crisis can compare, a role such as chief information officer grew considerably when cyberattacks and privacy issues became front-page events. And most companies had executives who focus on health and safety long before any pandemic. But those leaders often sit at the regional level and only specialize in one specific area—think senior occupational health manager or vice president of public policy and government affairs. So, experts say, while these executives could handle some of the health- and safety-related challenges brought about by COVID-19, this disparate, local approach won’t help organizations achieve their broader objectives. 

“It is not effective to triage this role,” says Radhika Papandreou, North American sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice. “We need a top-down approach where we have people from the healthcare space advising on what to do to keep people healthy.”