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March 21, 2022

Are HR Professionals Suffering from a Bad Case of Whiplash Leadership?

a snail crawling rather quickly

Opening for business, closing for business. Allowing remote work, banning remote work. Implementing a vaxx policy, changing the fine print five minutes later. If you’ve ventured anywhere near the world of HR these past couple of years, you’ve likely experienced more than a little whiplash.

It’s no secret that today’s business leaders have been under immense pressure to make fast changes due to a slew of issues they never imagined they’d have to deal with — everything from global lockdowns to vaccination mandates to rocky reopenings and minimum wage changes, and in some cases, the reversal of these things.

And if you think this on-again-off-again approach to running a business has been a pain in the neck for the leadership team, just imagine what your employees are feeling.

If you’ve been forced to flip, flop, or engage in any other acrobatics around your workplace policies these past couple of years, you’re likely experiencing a phenomenon known as whiplash leadership.

What is ‘Whiplash Leadership’? What every HR pro should know

We don’t know exactly who coined it, but the team at Korn Ferry recently released an article titled Welcome to Whiplash Leadership detailing the phenomenon we’ve all been feeling but didn’t quite have the words to describe.

In short, whiplash leadership refers to the “Repeated corporate reversals and backtracking [that] can cost firms dearly.”

And you already know what we’re talking about. The postponed conferences. The canceled office reopenings. The reversed vaccine policies. All of it.

Korn Ferry senior client partner Peter McDermott believes leaders have reached a “tipping point” where stakeholders ranging from employees to investors and even the media lose trust in your company and employer brand.

“From there, the negative commercial implications can be extremely challenging to turn around,” says McDermott.

As a business leader, recent years have likely taught you the importance of updating policies based on the latest data available. But when there’s increased back-and-forth within an organization, the rest of the world may interpret these rapid changes as “indecisiveness” and a “lack of organization.”

For employers hoping to attract and retain talent, it’s just not a good look.

Common symptoms of ‘Whiplash Leadership’ include:

  • Lack of employee trust
  • Lower employee satisfaction rates
  • Unstable business metrics
  • Overall lack of direction
  • Burnt out staff

With the speed at which the economy and talent markets are changing, not to mention the ever-wavering policy guidelines around Covid-19, reactive decisions may continue to be ‘business as usual’ for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, there are some practical steps you can take to avoid whiplash leadership and keep HR decision making both stable and agile — no matter what gets thrown your way.

HR has been put through the wringer. If you need to make quality hires asap, check out our quickstart guide on How a Smart ATS Can Help You Hire Better Candidates Faster.

HR responsibilities start with the employee

Take a quick look around and you’ll see that it’s never been sexier to quit your job.

The Great Resignation is the stuff 24-hour news cycles were made for. Meanwhile, employees are posting videos of themselves quitting their jobs everywhere from YouTube to “QuitTok”.

But what’s not being discussed is that we’re actually seeing job satisfaction scores reaching up to 56.9% — their highest levels in over 20 years. (Yes, really.)

This is largely due to the fact that this generation of workers isn’t afraid to go out and find jobs that make them feel happy, fulfilled, and respected — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for them either.

Here are just some of the challenges your employees may be facing:

  • Grief due to the loss of a loved one
  • Financial insecurity due to national rent hikes
  • Burnout due to constant changes in the workplace
  • Mental health challenges due to any and all of the above

Even before the pandemic, HR experts noted an increased willingness to switch jobs coming from the new generation of workers.

So while the past couple of years may have been the forcing mechanism for lasting change, the HR professionals who view this as all part of a greater paradigm shift will be those best-positioned to win the war for talent.

For forward-looking HR pros, workplace transformation was a long time coming. And they aren’t afraid to let the employee lead the charge.

Whiplash-free ways to help employees navigate change

If you count yourself among the HR and hiring managers who are ready to hop off the leadership rollercoaster and face modern workplace challenges head-on, here are a few things you can do to help make life easier for your employees.

  • Communicate with transparency: Talk openly with your employees. Explaining the “why” behind key organizational decisions can help maintain trust. By simply sitting down and having an open conversation with your staff, you show respect for the fact that these changes will impact their lives. A culture of open dialogue will also help build trust that you have things under control when they inevitably change again.
  • Offer choices where possible: Some employees may have experienced an increase in productivity since remote work started. Others may be worried their kids will get sick. Some employees might even miss the office. Human resources can offer options for employees to make decisions based on their own comfort levels when it comes to health and safety; they can help them feel more in control, and allow them to build mental stamina for additional changes you may need to make in the future. 
  • Don’t ignore the data: As business leaders bounce from HR policy to policy, we may find that some “temporary” solutions actually yield good results. Things like temporary role changes, remote work policies, and even marketing strategies don’t necessarily need to be reverted if the numbers map out. You may find some new efficiencies you haven’t yet considered. If it works for your people, be open and willing to make it part of your ongoing strategy.
  • Keep it human: Today’s employees are going to see right through corporate damage control. Inspirational quotes and mass emails with a sympathetic tone are not going to be enough to keep your staff happy. Take time to proactively reach out to employees and make sure they feel supported. Offer a place where they can provide feedback about their satisfaction levels at work. Fact is, they’re going to talk to each other. So really listen to what they have to say.

What to think about when deciding employee policy changes

Prioritize based on importance (not urgency): Consider if a change is for safety measures, or a business policy that will help the company grow. Employee safety (and employment laws) should always take top priority when making company-wide updates.

Look at the historics: Before the pandemic, how often were you making major policy changes? Most companies make moderate changes every year, and major changes every 4 to 5 years. How much has that shifted in the past two years? How have your employees and key business metrics responded in the past vs. now?

Treat fires as planned tests: Say your state decides to enter lockdown. You immediately need to implement a work from home policy. Treat it as a test, and keep an open mind to the opportunity that this forced experiment can present to the organization.

Continue to move towards your goals: As much as we want to limit change, now is a good time to take a look at your overall organization and identify opportunities for big shifts that will help minimize the number changes you’re going to need to continue to make. For example, finding new efficiencies in your hiring process and performance management processes can help long after things return to “normal”.

Create new decision-making processes: Difficult decision making is here to stay. So it’s important to have a process to help make these decisions feel less spontaneous. If you’re making a decision around a temporary shift, build a plan to help ease employees back out of the change.

Tips for better HR decision making:

  • Involve multiple people in the process (including your employees)
  • Identify the main goal and how it aligns with the company’s core values
  • Map out your best and worst case scenarios
  • Create a plan for the worst case scenario (just in case)

Bring your hiring process into the modern age

Clearly, your business needs are changing. And so are the needs of your current and future employees. 

If it’s been a while since you look at your career page, there’s never been a better time to give it a refresh based on what you have to offer in the job market right now. 

For the recruiters and hiring managers of the future, a candidate-friendly hiring process will help set the scene for better employee retention, no matter what the next decade may bring. 

Here are a few core areas to consider when revamping your recruitment strategy.

Budget and benefits: With the needs of the business consistently changing, now is a good time to revisit your hiring budgets and consider your benefits package. Do you offer health insurance that gives people peace of mind? Do you offer competitive salaries to help win top talent? Improve where you can and the right candidates will follow.

Job requirements: The requirements of individual roles have likely shifted. Candidates may need reliable internet and a place where they can work remotely in case of emergency. Roles themselves may have shifted too. In-person customer care team members may need to be able to adapt to new guidelines. Marketing team members may need to be specialized in digital transactions, rather than physical ones. Make sure your job postings accurately reflect these roles as they stand today.

Safety standards: Do employees have the option to work from home? Are masks and vaccines a requirement? List your protocol to ensure new hires know exactly what to expect. Be sure to integrate these guidelines into your interview questions and be open to answering any questions your candidates may have.

Interview your own team: Sometimes the best people to talk to are your own staff. Reaching out to people that are doing a job similar to the one you are hiring for will help you identify gaps that may be putting stress on the team and better outline the new role. Some companies also choose to include employee-led interviews as part of the hiring process. 

Update your technology: The hiring managers of tomorrow know that it’s all about candidate experience. Whether it’s sending a simple thank you email to your applicants, or letting them choose their own best time to schedule an interview, small things can make a big difference in the candidate experience. Today, there is a cost-effective cloud-based recruiting solution for almost every hiring problem. The right applicant tracking system (ATS) can do much of that for you.

Technology takes time (and money) to get started with. But it might not be as much as you think. Check out our guide on Finding the ROI on your ATS for a clear breakdown on the math. 

Stay the course

It’s never been more clear that employee retention and satisfaction matter. 

As HR professionals, we need to take a hard look at our leadership teams and our own personal leadership style to see how capable we are of delivering on the needs of our employees. HR pros, hiring managers, recruiters and executives are all under pressure to make decisions we’ve never faced before.

But by continuing to keep the employee at the forefront of our decision making, by communicating with trust and transparency, and by creating smart processes for resilient leadership, we can move from a place of whiplash to effective action.

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