How HR can support an organisation when its leader is absent

Following news that prime minister Boris Johnson was rushed into intensive care last week, we look at how organisations cope when their leader is absent

A key place to start, according to research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies Zofia Bajorek, is communication with other employees following the permission of the leader.

She said: “It is really important to let staff in the organisation know what is happening and how serious the condition is. There may already have been some clues that something may have been amiss but informing staff of what is occurring and any initial prognosis may provide clarity.

“However, this should be done sensitively, as this of course may be upsetting for some members of staff – so ensuring that there is time and space for individuals to speak to managers about any concerns, relay shock is also important.”

The average age of a FTSE 100 CEO is 55, the same age as Johnson, so HR could consider having conversations or developing ‘best practice’ as to what to do if the CEO requires a period of absence.

Bajorek added: “For some in organisations, a CEO’s absence would require other team members to step-up or undertake new or modified positions of responsibility, or changes in their work.

“It is important that these individuals are included in any decisions that are being made about them and their role changes, and are given the right information needed to undertake their role and have the support that they need. “

Companies rely on HR to offer support, empathy and guidance, particularly in times of crisis and during the absence of a leader employees are bound to feel anxious.

Bajorek added: “CEO’s are not just ‘leaders’ but they are colleagues and friends. As much as business decisions do have to be made, and business needs to continue – there is very much a human, emotional, and empathetic response to this as well. People will be anxious, worried, upset, have concern for their friend and this is to be understood and respected.”

In cases of an unexpected absence, HR director at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Jon Dawson said it is essential for workplaces to build an appropriate talent pipeline.

He said: “Our detailed plan is reviewed every month at our property headcount and talent planning meetings. After the monthly meetings the line manager and talent team partner with L&D to ensure effective development plans are then built around these monthly reviews for the colleagues identified.

“This information is then fed into the hotel and groups talent pools which ensures when senior leaders are absent that individuals identified are easily able to step up as part of their development.”

A good talent management strategy also means employees can get a chance to shine in a new role following an unexpected absence of a colleague.

Dawson added: “Since we have implemented these initiatives two years ago, the negative impact on the workforce has been minimised and we have also created some great opportunities for people to step up to new roles as part of their ongoing development within Mandarin Oriental.”

But HR should also be wary that leave of absence can also be a challenging time for the leaders who are having to step away.

Barbara Wilson took six months away from her role as HRD at a large City-based investment manager to undergo cancer treatment, a difficult process made easier due to communication.

She said: “I think what helped most was keeping my boss and my team totally up to date on what was happening in terms of my treatment and what my oncologist was advising me would be possible.

“I also made a point of having regular update calls with my boss and my team, and they came home to see me too from time to time.”

Wilson warned that those off sick can feel isolated despite keeping up with colleagues.

“I wanted to be kept up to date with everything that was happening but conference calls involving more than one or two people proved to be a bit of a nightmare.

"Sometimes people simply forgot to update me about things that were happening – just because they forgot - and that gave me feelings of anxiety about my current and future role. It is difficult asserting your authority when you are absent from the rest of your team and your colleagues.”

Through experience of helping clients through this challenging time, Aaron Albury, co-founder of HR consultancy LACE Partners, said there are a number of ways HR can support.

“HR should agree with the other members of the exec the adjusted governance and ensure changes are recorded. It should then provide coaching to those that step up and track feedback and lessons learnt during the cover and use to inform improvements to succession and development plans.”

Johnson is thankfully on the mend and no doubt will be back in office soon, yet Wilson warned things are unlikely to be the same after a long period of absence.

She added: “No-one should expect things to be as they were. You can rarely if ever go back to normal. A lot will have changed during your absence and you will need time to adjust – as will the team you will be rejoining.”