HR’s COVID-19 Response Defines Employer Brand

The talent decisions organizations make in response to COVID-19 are defining employer brands. HR leaders should ask these four questions to guide their strategies.

Imagine yourself sometime in the third or fourth quarter of 2020, or even the first quarter of 2021, after the first, most destructive wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course and the global economy is hopefully rebounding. You are wrapping up an interview with a promising candidate and the question to you is “What did you do to protect your employees during the coronavirus pandemic?”

“How your organization answers this question will affect your ability to both attract new talent and retain the top talent you already have because it indicates not only what the employee experience might be like, but also because it provides a window into the organization’s values,” says Brian Kropp, Distinguished Vice President, Research, Gartner.

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HR needs to answer these key talent questions to protect the employer brand and remain competitive in the post-pandemic talent market.

1. How has HR supported employees who were furloughed or temporarily laid off, and treated employees brought back into the workplace?

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the standard set by several large well-known employers, particularly in the retail, fast-food and technology sectors, was to continue paying hourly workers or subcontracted support staff while their workplaces were closed.

To help their employees, some hard-hit employers such as airlines and hotel chains partnered with other companies experiencing a temporary spike in demand for workers — supermarkets, big-box and e-commerce retailers, healthcare providers — to connect employees with short-term jobs. These arrangements typically included fast-track hiring for the temporary jobs and allowing employees to return to their original jobs when business picked up again.

When deciding which employees should return to the workplace, and when, organizations have largely deferred to government guidelines. But HR leaders also need to tackle these issues when developing and implementing their reentry strategies:

  • Communicating to employees that it is safe for them to return and why

  • Protecting them from the continuing risk of contracting the coronavirus at work

  • Handling the anxieties of those who are reluctant to come back

2. How can we protect both our employees’ financial well-being and that of the organization?

The COVID-19 crisis is putting severe pressure on organizations to cut payroll costs as they tighten their belts and continue to weather economic uncertainty. To avoid layoffs, many organizations have suspended raises and bonuses, cut salaries and reduced benefits.

At many organizations, CEOs and other senior leaders have agreed to forgo part or all of their own pay. This sends a message to employees that right now everyone at every level in the organization is sacrificing for the greater good. It also acknowledges that high-earning executives are better positioned to withstand a temporary loss of income than their frontline employees.

In today’s environment, many employees will be unable to meet their performance goals this year. Employees whose pay is linked directly to their performance, for instance in sales, are at risk financially, as most will likely fail to meet their targets. Some companies have shifted from annual sales compensation plans to quarterly plans. Others are guaranteeing they will provide their sales employees with a minimum target.

3. How can we balance protecting employees’ health and safety while recognizing and rewarding the employees who have continued coming into the workplace?

Frontline employees in essential sectors have been playing a role in preserving public health while social distancing rules are in effect. They are also putting their own health at risk every day when they go into the workplace. To acknowledge the efforts of these employees, many organizations have provided hazard pay, offered cash bonuses or implemented pay increases.  

Employers have also implemented or expanded paid sick leave for their hourly workforce, a benefit not typically available in the U.S. Organizations are also enabling staff to take longer periods of unpaid sick leave, including for those employees who are in caregiver roles, without being penalized or risking their job security.

These paid leave policies complement the more stringent measures companies are taking to protect their frontline employees’ health while they are working on-site. Retail, grocery and food-service businesses are providing employees with personal protection equipment, installing protective barriers and implementing social distancing rules in their stores. Some organizations are also conducting health scans before allowing employees to enter the premises.

4. What can HR do to support employees who are working from home and keep them engaged and productive?

Most companies had remote work policies for at least some of their employees before the COVID-19 pandemic, but few were prepared to have their entire staff working from home full-time. While many employers have shared best practices for remote work, leaders also need to recognize that these are exceptional circumstances and employees may not be able to apply these practices perfectly. Some types of employees will have unique teleworking challenges, such as patient privacy concerns for telehealth workers or security and access issues for government contractors.

Organizations have also recognized the unique circumstances for working parents who have children at home while schools are closed. To keep these employees engaged, some employers have expanded benefits — enabling flexible working hours, providing stipends to cover unforeseen expenses and starting resource groups to provide additional support.

“Employers that find sustainable, cost-effective ways to support their employees across all these dimensions will be well positioned to rehire and re-engage employees after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated and recover faster as the global economy gets back into gear,” says Kropp.

Gartner for HR clients can read more about how to protect their employer brand in today’s uncertain environment in the report What Companies Do for Employees Now Will Define Their Employer Brand for Years to Come.

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