Q&A with Jan van der Hoop: Coping with the Implications of Coronavirus for HR



David Rice
04/29/2020

Companies are struggling to deal with the implications of coronavirus

We’ve entered unprecedented times for practically every industry around the globe as the current pandemic wreaks havoc with the way things have traditionally been done. HR is no different, as management of the workforce has become more challenging in recent weeks and months, with no shortage of difficult decisions ahead.

HR, like other sectors, has begun to turn toward technology to assist in those decision making processes. Technology providers are in a unique position as they now will play a key role in shaping the post pandemic workforce and helping companies streamline their workforce management processes during it.

To chat more about the role of technology in HR’s future and what to expect next, we caught up with Jan van der Hoop, president and co-founder of FitFirst Technologies. The company specializes in behavioral job matching, designed for both employer and job seeker use. Jan is a member of the HR Exchange Network Advisory Board as well.

The Changing Landscape

HREN: When businesses come back, hiring is going to occur in a wave for some. What advice would you give those companies as they do that?

“For many organizations, the easiest decision can be the biggest mistake. The easiest decision would just be to say let’s bring back the people we had in the positions they were in if they’re still available. But what you discover if you look at it is that a lot of times, organizations may be fully staffed, but they’re not well staffed. There is a significant portion of the workforce that is in jobs that they can do, but they really shouldn’t be doing. It’s not their forte, it’s not who they are. Sometimes it happens because they’re hired to fill a slot, sometimes the company grows and changes and the job morphs and the content of the job changes so it’s no longer in their sweet spot. Little changes like that can disenable people bit by bit.

You’ll see it if you look at symptoms like engagement levels, turnover levels, productivity, absenteeism. Those are all symptomatic of people who are working but are in the wrong job. So part of what I see here is an opportunity for level setting. It’s a great opportunity for people and organizations both to look in the mirror and say how can we do this better? How can we make better use of the people we’ve got by applying them and their talents differently? How can we use this as an opportunity to help people who are no longer a fit for us to find their right next thing? And how can we equip people to ask themselves these same questions?”

READ: Overcoming Talent Acquisition Difficulties During a Pandemic and Recession

HREN: At some point there will be a rebound after this, so to speak. There’s a lot of talk around people being just as able to work from home as they are in offices and around the idea that some are more productive. So how do companies get ready for that and prepare for a job market that will look distinctively different than it does to today?

“Things are not going back to the way they were. Business will be done differently on the other side of this. More people will work from home, permanently. People will not converge the way they did. They won’t travel, commute or take mass transit in the way they did, at least not for a long time. People will consume and spend differently. All of these things have implications to almost every aspect of your business. Now is your golden opportunity to think through how you could shift, change, restructure, re-staff to be ready for when things turn around. Which they surely will, in surprising, scary and uneven ways. Fasten your seatbelt.”

HREN: What do you think is going to be the most different aspect of how HR departments do business after this?

“I think it needs to start with some scenario planning. Business leaders really need to start to think through two or three different scenario plans. If we come back to normal sort of activity in the next few months, that’s one thing, and you have to try and estimate how far back to normal we get. I’m not just talking about how we get work done, I’m talking about consumption patterns, because how we structure and staff the organization has to be the outcome of how we think we’re going to be doing business. If you’re in groceries, you kind of know how things are going to look, but if you’re running a transit system, you simply don’t know what to expect. Right now, governments are still operating them as a service, but they’re losing money hand over fist. So what does transit look like if this goes on for a long time?

If there is second wave of the virus and, as it was with the Spanish flu, it is even more dramatic and more deadly, I’d say all bets are off. From a business planning standpoint, that’s a whole other set of contingencies I need to plan for and those contingencies are what needs to drive our staffing plans.”

Tough HR Decisions

HREN: One of the questions that is bound to come up in conversations with candidates if you are hiring is going to be “how did you handle this?” What should companies take from this first wave of the virus, because if the next one is potentially worse, how do you have to handle it differently?

“I’ve heard of lots of organizations where this has been a call to leadership that has been met with great sensitivity and it’s brought things out of those leaders that weren’t visible before. Extraordinary compassion and empathy for people and their needs. There’s other organizations where that hasn’t been the case. Conventional wisdom tells us that the companies that have used the tax breaks and resources at their disposal to avoid having to lay people off, they’re going to be the winners. They tend to come back to normal operations and greater levels of profitability 20% faster than organizations that laid everyone off and put them on unemployment.

I would say unequivocally though that if this goes on for months, if there is a second wave, all the great leadership and good intentions that we’ve seen on display in this wave aren’t going to be possible any longer for a lot of companies. A lot of businesses simply aren’t going to be able to afford to keep people on their payroll and the government can’t afford to subsidize the salary. It goes back to scenario planning, because there are very possible outcomes of this that are extremely unappealing. I don’t have a crystal ball, but there are going to be states, and provinces in Canada, opening up as early as this week and we’ll all be watching very closely to see what happens.”

HREN: When we look at HR specifically, what do you think the most fundamental challenge is as we move through this time period?

“With 27 million people now sidelined, finding the right people to bring back is going to be critical. But there’s a fundamental flaw. The thing we’ve had most wrong for a long time in HR is our reliance on the resume. Back in the industrial age, it made sense because I just needed someone to sit on the assembly line and it really didn’t matter what your education or experience was. Statistically speaking, the stuff in the resume is a very weak predictor of success today, yet all of our screening systems start with the resume and algorithms that are looking for the right combinations of phrases and keywords and pushing those candidates to the top. When you look at all the academic research, the elements that are in the resume might be important as gatekeepers, but they don’t predict success.

We can’t rely on traditional applicant tracking systems as a result, because there is going to be even more resumes for it to comb through. I think two things become critical. The first thing is that, while we don’t let go of the resume entirely, we need to focus on finding people who behaviorally are a really strong fit for the culture and how the work gets done at an organization. That has to be the first scrub and there are systems that can help create a different subset of candidates whose resumes you’ll end up looking at.

The second part is your reference checks. It’s always been a pain in the HR professional’s side, but aside from a behavioral fit and a good interview, it’s the most important bit of information you can collect on a candidate.”

WHITEPAPER: Preparing for the Machines

HREN: I suppose if there has ever been a time for algorithms to help us, this is it?

“Well, yes, but it has to be the right algorithms. It’s about measuring what matters. There’s plenty of algorithms baked into applicant tracking systems to help you find the right resumes. But the resumes are leading us up the wrong track. Most people don’t write their own resumes anyhow. The reliability of the information in the resume and the data it provides as a reference point to predict suitability is flawed. The AI systems we’re using are not themselves bad, we’re just feeding them the wrong data.

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