Ideas & Debate

Priorities for HR managers amid the coronavirus crisis

Human resource managers at the 6th HR Congress in Mombasa in May 2019
Human resource managers at the 6th HR Congress in Mombasa in May 2019. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

As Africa contends with the Covid-19 virus and its global effects, human resource (HR) managers must rethink their people management strategies to maintain the delicate equilibrium between staff, welfare schemes and traditional stakeholder’s expectations, especially of profit and revenue.

HR managers will be expected to come out and advise both employees and employers on how to contextualise the situation to ensure a good understanding of organisation leadership, direction and disruption during a global crisis. We all appreciate that there are common global and standard HR practices that will apply across the board but certainly there are some distinct people management practices that HR practitioners need to emphasise on because of our diverse cultural practices.

Imagine an entry level research assistant’s house in a populated African city suburb, no running water, unreliable electricity supply and surrounded with a seriously insecure environment, probably with a noisy pub downstairs trying to conclude on a research finding with the companies expensive i7 laptop?

Or imagine your senior officer struggling with resisting the interference of children in the house, the smell of food being prepared, because we still believe in hot meals cooked over time with the familiar aroma filling the whole house over a period of time, as opposed to an American situation where it takes a couple of minutes to warm a burger. That’s it? Will the productivity be measured the same way you have done it in the past owing to the differences in “place of work” environments?

Having practised HR across many countries in Africa, I have come to the conclusion that this is the time to take a huge leap to real people management practices. Employees are first human beings before being human doings. It is during a crisis like this that the governing bodies honestly consult HR leadership on how to implement their decisions.


Over time, HR leaders have been complaining how their voices are not heard. This is the time their voices should be not just heard but obeyed by leadership. In fact, the advisories most business owners are asking, is, what is the minimum HR practice change that will not offend the law when it comes to contract management issues such as employee layoffs, reduction of salaries, obligations of employers in the provisions of basic amenities at the workplace, or management of leave.

Interesting some CEOs have not understood to date the various leaves applicable. I was not surprised when some were seeking to understand whether leave is a right or a privilege.

Ideally basics like leave and pay in today’s global HR practice is the line managers’ responsibilities. But across most organisations in Africa, these are the core business of HR managers. The African perspective is that HR leaders must have one-on-one sittings with the CEOs to advise them on how to handle people, “not employees”, during this time. The situation calls for human resource managers to make human resources available to humans!

What this means is that leaders must ensure that they are jealously guarding the fundamental freedoms and rights of the people, which is foremost the ‘Right to Life, good equitable life’

The conundrum right now is between what is urgent versus what is important. Much as there is the need to ensure productivity and outputs are realised I believe human life surpasses the urgency of revenue or meeting shareholder expectations.

Probably one reason why I have been hesitant to respond to many questions being raised by HR managers on many secondary HR issues is because I believe we should first resolve the life issues first. Life issues are that that can only be felt (done) by humans and no matter what — the machines cannot do. In real sense, this is what people managers should manage — performance.

I am sorry for not paying attention to my fellow HR leaders in our different HR platforms asking questions like, how do we measure performance during this period? How do we ensure effectiveness? How do we respond to management expectations on reporting on work progress? Where can we get applicable tools in arriving at layoffs as a result of the crisis? How do we apply force majeure in the contracts? Yes we cannot ignore these “hard HR” as HR professionals but first let us address what is critical, what is impacts the people and people’s health.

So then, what should be our priority?

First, HR professionals must themselves understand Covid-19. I know you may be far from a medical classroom but I have personally understood the various compositions and DNA of the virus. If this is too technical then, we must appreciate its impact. You cannot react to a situation you don’t understand. Just like we have previously insisted, understand the business of the organisation and be part of it. This coronavirus is now our business.

Secondly, inform. We must create channels to inform the workforce, (in our African context, plus their families and relatives) of the pandemic. It is our responsibility. You must play your role and to us as African HR professionals, passing the right information must be extended to the relatives of our employees as they are culturally part of the employees. For example, if called upon by your employee’s relative asking why the employee is not at the ancestral home for “government-forced” leave, take your time to provide correct information

Thirdly, the priority now is people protection. Focus on the person, his or her health. Join the millions in ensuring hand wash, emphasising social distancing, explaining quarantine (it is not detention), encouraging healthy habits, eating, home exercising and financial life and social life balancing.

Fourth, joining the other professionals in lobbying — for example governments for tax breaks, encouraging people to volunteer their professional inputs. Last but not least, and this will be different from other global HR practices, in Africa people believe in prayers.

Onyango is national chairman, Institute of Human Resource Management (IHRM) Kenya.