Teaching HR in Real Time

Students explore the ways HR departments respond to the challenges of COVID-19. 
Teaching HR in Real Time

AS THE TEACHER of a 400-level undergraduate course titled Current Issues in Human Resources, I am aware of so many issues I could cover in assignments that I find it almost painful to have to leave some things out each semester. However, I faced a different set of difficult choices as I taught this course during the winter 2020 semester at Eastern Michigan University’s College of Business in Ypsilanti.

Although the class was already being taught online, I had to figure out how to turn this situation into a teaching moment. Our typical EMU student works at least half time, if not full time, and many have spouses and children. My students were well into the writing of their final papers. Some were adding childcare to their job and school responsibilities, while others were first responders and essential services employees who had to go to work. Nonetheless, they were holding up their end of our online course contract and getting their work done. Could I add one more assignment?

I decided to design my assignment in the form of extra credit. I posted a threaded discussion regarding the ways companies and HR managers were responding to COVID-19. While it was an optional assignment, I begged students to participate because it was such an amazing opportunity to learn about a current issue in real time. I pointed out that they would be engaging with material that not only was constantly changing, but that was critical to them, their colleagues, and their families. Moreover, the situation demanded innovation and critical thinking.

RESEARCHING THE RESPONSES

In the course I teach, I stress that professionals need to gather evidence to support the development of any new policy or procedural responses. I also emphasize that HR practitioners must examine best practices from credible sources.

For the COVID-19 assignment, I asked students to research the issue by reading at least three articles depicting the ways organizations were responding to the crisis. What HR policies were the companies putting in place, beyond having employees work from home? How were companies protecting their employees physically, financially, and in terms of employment? How were they assisting their employees, and how were they deploying their employees to assist the community? How were they maintaining a sense of community among their employees? How were they protecting or supporting customers?

Students had to describe the policies or actions that the companies were instituting and comment on the probable effectiveness of these policies based on what they had learned in class. They needed to state which actions they thought were positive (such as customer outreach), which actions they thought might lead to negative consequences (such as layoffs), and why.

To uncover information, students went to company websites to look for publicly stated policies that might have been described in letters from CEOs or HR vice presidents. They also examined business publications such as Forbes, browsed local news websites, and read publications from the Society for Human Resource Management. Because this is an evidence-based class, they were not allowed to draw information from blogs. I challenged students to find innovative policies to post about on the thread and invited them to comment on the posts of their fellow students.

POLICIES AND PRACTICES

Of my 23 students, 12 responded with detailed first posts, and their classmates made multiple comments. Many students started with larger companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, and auto manufacturers in nearby Detroit. Some posted letters in which CEOs expressed their values and attitudes about employee safety and health. Others found articles that described some companies’ specific responses— for instance, providing personal protective equipment, forming crisis management teams, or offering service pay bumps to employees who were still coming in to work. Students seemed to have the strongest positive reactions to companies that set up funds to support employees who contracted COVID-19.

As the class progressed, students examined policies in a wide range of industries. They were particularly interested in the special hours that grocery stores had implemented to protect seniors and people with compromised immune systems. One student compared the policies of a small, local grocery chain with two national chains and found that the single difference between them was that the larger organizations had started requiring temperature checks for employees who were beginning their shifts. Another student walked through Walmart to observe what was in place compared to what was published.

One student wrote about an auto insurance company that offered customers a 20 percent credit because fewer people were driving during the pandemic. Classmates debated whether this was feasible. Another student analyzed the statements made by our university president, who suspended face-to-face instruction nearly two weeks before our governor issued her first “stay home, stay safe” executive order.

Students also looked for ways companies were trying to help employees and customers. For instance, Starbucks offered its employees free mental health therapy. Logitech provided free webcams and headsets to K-12 teachers. Jellyfish extended IT services and support to employees who needed help setting up their children’s school software at home. A major financial services organization announced US$1,200 checks for all employees and provided 100 percent coverage of COVID-19 testing, 30 days of emergency care for employees’ elderly relatives, and free access to mental health professionals.

As most of my students work fulltime, the assignment gave many of them the opportunity to compare the responses of their own employers to those of the companies they researched. For instance, a student who works for Aflac noted that the company was offering COVID-19 relief loans to 1099 workers who were not fully eligible for unemployment benefits.

Students generally felt that the companies they researched had implemented their HR responses with thought and care. They noted that the policies were designed to support employees, ensure the safety of customers, and motivate employees to continue working hard. Students also had to discuss the layoffs that many companies introduced. For the most part, students viewed the layoffs as negative outcomes that were caused primarily by the virus, not by organizational decision making. But they had more positive views of companies that tempered the layoffs with two weeks of pay and the extension of healthcare benefits.

Students also found relevant research that didn’t pertain to individual companies. One shared a research article about the H1N1 flu outbreak, which described necessary HR responses to pandemics. Students on the discussion thread debated how the guidelines in the article might be applied by HR leaders now.

A TEACHING MOMENT

I was deeply impressed by the fact that students read each other’s entries and added new relevant information about the companies under discussion. I also felt that, as a teaching moment, the assignment was successful. Students used credible information sources, examined a range of organizations, assessed the quality of the new policies, and expressed compassion for employees and organizations in this challenging time.

I think it’s critical to have my students understand their responsibility to take thoughtful, evidence-based actions. To some extent, I can prepare them to do this through case studies and role-playing exercises, but neither of those experiences compares to living through an emergency situation. The pandemic forced them to examine in real time what actions are possible in a crisis and what they might consider doing when they become practitioners. It showed them that they will need clear thinking and strong expertise to function in a world that can change in a moment.

Denise Tanguay is a professor of management at Eastern Michigan University’s College of Business in Ypsilanti. She is also a Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional.

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