The Role Of HR In Assisting Line Managers To Demonstrate Care In A Crisis

Below is a report on the Legitimate Leadership webinar held on this subject on 7 May 2020 (with some questions and answers at the end). The Legitimate Leadership presenters were Wendy Lambourne and Leanne Maree. 

Legitimate Leadership says that only if you are seen to care will you be trusted by those who report to you. People will only consent to being led if their leader cares for them (primarily) and grows them.

So how does human resources (HR) help leaders in their organisations to care for their people?

The conventional view is that care is about looking after people’s physical and material needs. This is true. Particularly in the Covid-19 crisis, line managers need ensure people’s safety and health – for instance PPE (personal protective equipment), screening and social distancing.

They also need to do the best they can, within their means, to ensure that people’s pay needs are catered for. The capacity of companies to do this differs. For instance in the first world, government support is generally much greater than in the developing world.

Some companies can pay 100%; some companies can pay nothing. But trust in leadership will not necessarily differ between those extremes! Appropriate care does not mean paying 100% if that means the business will be out of business.

Legitimate Leadership has identified six key roles that HR can play, to enable line managers to care.

But care is not just about physical matters and pay. The giving should be not just of things but of self.

The How of care is also important. In other words, the care must make employees stronger in the crisis and not do the opposite.

The three care Gives are: Time and attention; Honesty; and Tough Love.

Time and attention

There is an inextricable link between what you care about and time and attention paid to it. If a leader doesn’t give time to his people then they will inevitably conclude that they are not his focus. So there is a need to especially increase time and attention in a crisis. Most of all, the leader should be spending time listening to his people to establish where each individual is (because people’s level of response differs) on the following three: mindset; positivity; and degree to which they feel in control.

Leaders must ascertain and acknowledge – and not judge or tell people to be different. No one calms down as a result of being told to calm down. But leaders can help people to progress from left to right on each of the three.


Communication is obviously very important in a crisis. More important than the medium (video, management briefing, face-to-face, etc), or even the content (what you say), is who is doing the communicating. Managers individually and collectively will only be trusted if they are communicating with their people in their best interests. Management cannot communicate things in their interest but withhold some information that they think may not be in management’s own interests. Honesty means being prepared to disclose information that you are not actually required to disclose. And leaders must not protect their people by withholding information because then they are not treating them as adults.

When a leader is trusting of his people and discloses to them information which he does not have to disclose, they will demonstrate their trustworthiness in return.

Tough love

The degree to which people are impacted by the crisis will differ. Some people will suffer a little, others will suffer hugely. The issue is: are their leaders aware of this and do they show concern? Leaders should be compassionate, kind and magnanimous (not so much in money but in generosity of spirit – that is, cut them some slack and show understanding of what they are going through). In responding it is very important for a leader to first ask, “What is the caring but at the same time enabling thing to do here?” That is, don’t make them small, but big. Don’t decide for them, don’t encourage dependency, don’t patronise them. Help them stand on their own two feet. Enable them to understand, if not overcome, the difficult circumstances. People will then be robust, trustworthy and will take responsibility despite their circumstances.


The personal wellbeing of employees is often largely shaped and impacted by the organisations where they work and by their line manager.

Legitimate Leadership has identified six key roles, below, that HR can play, to enable line managers to care. HR should be aware that line managers will be looking at HR to do many of these things for them. But fundamentally, HR cannot do the care thing for them. If they do, they will disenable them. However, there are many things that HR can do to enable line managers to care.

Being the people’s conscience regarding care

HR is the ombudsman of making sure that employees are treated fairly and that organisational decisions take into account their personal and mental wellbeing and growth opportunities. It is HR’s responsibility to ensure that any interventions by the organisation are balanced with the collective interests of employees, and that employees are represented in the discussions. This is tricky because HR constantly has to navigate between the employees’ and the organisation’s requirements. For instance, the organisation may not be able to keep paying people because this may not be sustainable longer term. So, for example, HR, the people’s conscience, must ask whether a reduction in hours can be negotiated.

HR must ensure that line managers are able to react to the short-term crisis but still ensure that there is a sustainable future for all.

HR must also ensure that the leadership’s actions are a reflection of the organisation’s values, and continue to hold leadership accountable for this. And, at least in Legitimate Leadership-aligned businesses, a core value is care.

HR should ask, “What do we want to be known for and remembered for by all our stakeholders?”

Being the expert on people care policies

New legislation, some of it temporary, is being enacted continually – changes in unemployment insurance funds, working hours, work-from-home rules, social distancing rules, wearing masks, etc. This has a significant impact on compliance in organisations. It is HR’s role to research and synthesise all this.

Line managers by contrast are focused on production and getting services and operations done. They do not have the opportunity or time to research legislation, for instance. HR can have a huge impact here by responding to changes quickly, and aligning care policies to ensure compliance.

Most importantly, HR needs to be much better at communicating the changes in these policies and the reasons for them, to line managers – so that they understand them. Because only when line managers understand them will they be able to communicate and execute the changes. Otherwise HR will see resistance and ‘the complaining process’ – it is easier to moan than to do.

HR should not arrogantly think that it gets it right in being a service provider to line managers – it must always go back to engage and listen to them about responding to the difficulties in practice in executing change policies.

Providing guidance on the How and the Why of care

Legitimacy of leadership only happens when there is trust. Trust and willingness of employees are engaged when they perceive that the leader cares about them. That is when they are prepared to make sacrifices and go the extra mile for the leader.

Care has no strings attached and is strong and kind.

As in our personal lives, in the heat of the fight/crisis, it’s not what the leader says to you but how it makes you feel, that creates the lingering memory. When the sky is falling around you, if your leader makes you feel that he/she cares for you, that is what you will remember in that relationship.

Communication is HR’s kryptonite. HR often makes mistakes, gives too much information, gives misleading information, or overwhelms line managers with volume – “I have 800 unread emails.”

If the messages are confusing, you’re losing. Be sure to choose your words carefully when you coach leaders on the How. Coach them on how to listen, to understand, to communicate. And that they need to continually hold employees accountable for delivery to standard – because a fundamental aspect of care is holding people accountable.

Being the trusted adviser to line managers on specific people care issues

HR often has huge swathes of responsibility in an organisation – but little authority. And HR often has functional expertise that their clients (line managers) do not – but often line managers don’t want to hear it from HR and possibly don’t even respect them.

So, if it is not in place, a key role for HR is to start gaining the respect and even the liking of their clients – a relationship of trust – in order to be effective in the role. HR must seek to become the trusted business adviser and the trusted partner of line management.

People trust you when they know that you have their back, that you are there in the trenches supporting their initiatives and not sitting on the sidelines and complaining about people in sales, production, marketing, etc.

So, have their backs and be supportive.

Hand-in-hand with care is HR’s role in ensuring that there is fairness and consistency in the treatment of employees. They should ensure that line managers understand the difference between fairness and consistency, and that they execute fairness and consistency in all their dealings and treatments with staff.

Fairness means treating employees appropriately and individually – as each one comes to work with different circumstances, anxieties and energy levels. Fairness also means taking due consideration of circumstances, performances and contributions.

Consistency is about taking appropriate action when a standard is breached. It does not necessarily have to be the same action. It must be appropriate to what was preached and what the employee’s intention was – careless, malicious, etc.

The leader must always act with the same intent.

HR must ensure that the maintenance of standards is still a critical deliverable. HR must assist in holding people accountable where they have been malicious – for instance in the spreading of false emails or fake news or breaching of safety standards or the cutting of corners deliberately. HR must help line managers to speed up the disciplining process in these instances – and to give recognition and gratitude when appropriate. For instance, enable line managers to recognise employees who are displaying careful behaviours – adhering to safety, quality and other standards.

And HR must assist line managers to reward employees commensurately with their added value – their added deliverables during the crisis (which can be reviewed after the crisis has passed).

Making sure that line managers are cared for as well

A crisis is a good time to get close to line managers, to walk the path with them. Good relationships with their support services will enable line managers to keep calm and carry on – and enable teams to feel safe and secure.

HR needs to ensure that line managers are taking care of themselves mentally and physically so that they can be fully present, calm and in control. A crisis is fuelled when composure is missing.

HR must engage with line managers to assess where they are at, and listen to and understand their concerns, fears and frustrations – but they should also constantly remind line managers that not only must they hold their people accountable, but they will in turn be held accountable.

So HR needs to get out in into the trenches with their line managers and build these relationships of trust.


Q: Is there any difference between care in a crisis and care in normal times?

A: There isn’t a real difference between what leaders should do. In a crisis they must do what they have always done but they must do more of it. David Ulrich says leadership actions are magnified in a crisis and they leave lingering memories. In a crisis, you have to be even better at care.

Q: Should HR or line managers try and encourage a feeling of certainty or positivity among employees?

A: No, you can deliver time and attention, honesty and tough love; you cannot deliver certainty. And it is okay to say, “I don’t know.” Information and legislation surrounding this pandemic is changing daily, so leaders should not put stress on themselves to provide information in advance. They will exhaust themselves trying to plan for every scenario. The only certainty we can give people is that we will tell them the truth.

HR may find itself torn between trying to be positive to buoy people, and the sombre reality. They won’t want to overly upset people who are really having a bad time, so what note should they strike?

HR’s responsibility is to be honest and reflective of the situation – it will lose credibility if it is too polyanna-ish. And it is okay for anyone to have a bad day, to be sombre.

It may be important for HR to share why it is feeling what it is feeling and own how its mood may be affecting how it is communicating.

Likewise for line managers. Often they try to buoy people, or try to provide certainty when there is none so that people will feel better. But then they are essentially lying to employees –pretending to know the future when that is impossible.

Q: Surely holding people to account during a crisis increases the stress on them?

A: Care is only care if you still hold people accountable. In this crisis, line managers may say, “But my people are so frightened, they are coming to work because what we do is an essential service. How can I now add to their anxiety by holding them accountable, insisting on adherence to standards? And how can I even insist that they come to work?”

In fact, that is exactly what care means.

And you cannot hold people accountable if your expectations of them have not been fully clarified upfront. The starting point is to make it absolutely clear that you are an essential service, you have to operate, and the expectation of employees is that they do come to work, that they do the best job that they can, and that in no way do standards (particularly standards pertaining to safety and quality) decline during this time.

And employees should be told that they will be held accountable for this.

Line managers may well receive this advice from HR with relief. HR cannot do this for them but if they are trusted advisers, line managers will be seeking their counsel and advice. HR’s job is to give them the right advice that will enable them to do the care thing during the crisis.

Q: How can I know as an HR professional that I am doing a good job in enabling line managers?

A: Your workload during this time may be huge! HR has generally risen to this challenge! After the crisis, the diagnostics will reveal that. But if you want to know how well you are doing now, ask the recipients of your interventions whether they are happy with what you are delivering, whether you can do something else for them, what they expect from you. Keep communicating and exchanging ideas. And you may liaise with your professional bodies or equivalent colleagues in other companies or departments to check your interactions. But if your intent is nothing but the sound and good interests of the employees, you’re on the right track.