Is Your Staff Firing on All Cylinders? 6 Key HR Issues for 2021

Enduring a global pandemic may not be as traumatizing as military combat, but in both cases, the aftereffects can linger. When the smoke clears, there's a lot of rebuilding that needs to happen to return to a state of normalcy. And as the COVID-19 pandemic finally begins to recede into the rearview mirror, another potentially disruptive force may come into play: a new direction in federal labor policy.

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Here are some key HR issues and questions to ask yourself and prepare to grapple with as the year unfolds.

1.  What's the best return-to-work scenario?

If many members of your team have been able to work from home over the past year, you'll probably find that some want to make that arrangement permanent. But is that a good idea? Finding the best answer will depend, first, on your ability to decide which employees can work as well from home as they do at your workplace, and how to handle those for whom this isn't a good idea.

Then you'll need to figure out how to handle employees who want to work from home but haven't demonstrated their ability to do so productively. You'll need to consider the morale impact of your decisions (both positive and negative). And you'll need to check to be sure no demographic patterns emerge in your decisions that could open you up to a discrimination charge. For example, suppose all those you allow to work from home happen to be women with young families and those you require to return to the workplace fall outside of that category. That decision may make perfect sense to you, but you may get some serious complaints of discrimination.

2.  How can you keep employees safe from COVID-19?

You may have some vaccination skeptics on your payroll. If you aren't one yourself, you may need to think about the steps you can take to get your staff on board with receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Few employers outside certain industry sectors (for example, food production) are planning to make vaccination a condition of returning to work. Legal risks could loom large with requiring vaccinations, except under conditions where the risk of spreading infection is high. So, you'll need to consider a spectrum of responses from doing nothing at all, to gentle nudging, to cash or paid-time-off incentives.

3.  Are your employees experiencing any lingering emotional wounds?

The pandemic has trained the spotlight on the lingering productivity-draining emotional impact of major disasters. Chances are you have employees who have lost loved ones to the virus. Or if they had to endure lengthy periods of unemployment, their personal finances may be in tatters. Or those who spent months working from home may have developed a sense of alienation from you and their coworkers. Whatever the case, it's important to assess the non-medical well-being of employees and what resources you might need to make available to them to help them get back on track.

4.  Is your staff the right size?

During the pandemic many employers were able to get by with fewer employees. While some of that was due to a pandemic-induced slowdown in business, lessons in maximizing productivity have emerged. Some employers will conclude that, even with an eventual return to pre-pandemic business volume, their staff needs to be downsized. Knowing how to do so ethically and in a legally defensible way is key.

5.  Is your team diverse and inclusive enough?

Diversity isn't a new issue in business staffing practices. However, it's taken on greater urgency in recent months because of some high-profile racially charged incidents around the country. Some critics maintain that corporate diversity training programs can be ineffectual at best, and counterproductive at worst. But for many employers, unresolved diversity challenges remain. Some employers may need to take a fresh look at the potential benefits of having a diverse workforce, and the best path to achieve a robust level of diversity that delivers benefits to all concerned.

6.  Does your compensation pattern meet a gender equity test?

As with diversity, pay equity from a gender perspective is in the spotlight. Federal proposals to redefine pay discrimination are more warmly received by the political party now in power in Washington. While few employers would consider that their pay practices are unfair to women, it might be fruitful for employers to look at the issue in a new way. For example, some states are discouraging employers from basing compensation offers to new hires on their salary history alone. That approach can lock many women into lower salary ranges. Employers are encouraged (or possibly required) to base pay offers purely on what is paid to male employees performing the same work with the same level of responsibility.

Running a successful business is never simple. But it's made easier by having a loyal, productive and contented workforce. That requires regularly asking yourself important HR management questions and, when needed, making changes to turn change unsatisfactory answers into good ones.

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