Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

A Paramedic-Turned-Human-Resources Approach to HR and COVID-19

A few weeks ago, HR Works Podcast featured Taylor Bradley, a former firefighter paramedic who now works in HR. We asked him some follow-up questions about COVID-19.

COVID-19

Source: Antonio Rico / shutterstock

In case you missed the episode, listen here. Alternatively, we’ve provided a transcript of it below the Q&A.

HR Daily Advisor: As a former paramedic and a current HR professional, is there anything employers are not understanding about the current crisis?

Bradley: Indecision kills. One of the worst things you can do for a patient is freeze when immediate intervention is needed. The correct treatment even slightly delayed is still the wrong approach. In medicine, every second delayed may exponentially increase the need for a more intensive intervention to save the patient.

At this moment, we are all confronted with varying degrees of difficult decisions. Material decisions should be balanced with thoughtful data and experience-driven debate but should not be delayed by indecision. The passage of time can contribute to the worsening of your situation, requiring an even greater response. Patients are never served if those with the ability to help fail to act.

HR Daily Advisor: Do you have any ideas about how the unprecedented unemployment will change the HR landscape?

Bradley: The “new normal” will undoubtedly be a new iteration of what we previously considered “normal.” There will be familiar themes, but if the “new normal” looks exactly like the “old normal,” then we have failed to learn from the crisis.

We have now entered the “late majority and laggards” phase of digital transformation and workplace flexibility. Inevitably, there will be many future webinars on “how to plan for pandemics,” but I feel this is not the ideal approach.

Instead, HR leaders now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop a more agile, technologically adept, and health-conscious workforce—one that is better prepared to adapt to macro forces.

HR Daily Advisor: What advice would you give an HR department at this time that is struggling to keep up with the many challenges coming its way because of this crisis?

Bradley: Crisis management and operational continuity are two equally important tasks that must be in balance. Triage all HR tasks, and if necessary, reallocate the staff on your HR team to support vital functions until you enter a more stable phase. This crisis may ultimately prove to be the most effective cross-functional training opportunity for HR staff who have found themselves thrust into the middle of a crisis. Eventually, those teams able to adapt and embrace the idea of a more agile HR team will emerge better off in the long run.

“Me, Us, Them.” This is one of the most important phrases from my time in the fire service. You must take care of yourself before you can take care of your team. You must consider the needs of your team before you can take care of others.

Do not forget that “you” and your team are human. Know your limits and when to take a break. Even at the scene of a major fire, firefighters rest and recuperate on a rotational basis so they can continue providing a high-quality response.

To ensure team effectiveness and continuity, HR teams should consider this principle even in the midst of managing a crisis.

HR Daily Advisor: After this is all over, do you think there will be an uptick in employers growing/expanding their HR teams?

Bradley: It depends. HR structures should not be designed for the potential extreme circumstance; instead, they should be designed for outcomes. HR departments must be agile and aligned to business needs, which will now likely include digital transformation, workplace flexibility, and enhancing agility.

In the fire service, major structure fires are a rarity nowadays. Though after a major structure fire, it is unlikely fire chiefs would say, “We need to increase staffing for the next big one.” Instead, they seek to understand how their existing resources could be better prepared for the “next big one.” First, seek to enhance your current team’s capabilities. Then, if necessary, add to them.

HR Daily Advisor: What has this challenge taught you?

Bradley: During my time as a medic, I realized that every 911 call was unique. From fires and medical emergencies to getting a bird out of a house, each call was a need that required an outcome.

Though it was impossible to train for every circumstance, I did develop expertise in problem-solving. I took the problem-solving methodology first responders utilize and summarized it into the acronym ADP: Assess the situation, Determine the needs, and Provide an outcome. The medic’s method enabled me to adapt and overcome the variety of challenges I faced.

The medic’s method still plays an active role in my career. It would be ineffective to plan for every circumstance a business may face. Though unprecedented, when faced with this crisis, I asked myself: What is the situation, what are the needs, and what outcome do I need to help provide? The crisis reiterated to me the reliability of the medic’s method, the need to acknowledge personal limits, and what can be accomplished when I rely on my team.

Catch up on our full interview with Taylor Bradley, below:

HR Daily Advisor: Hello, everyone, and welcome to HR Works, the podcast for HR professionals. We really appreciate your taking the time out of your busy day to join us. I’m Jim Davis, the host of HR Works and the editor of the HR Daily Advisor. This podcast aims to put valuable tools and knowledge into the hands and ears of you, the HR professional. Those tools will arm you with the best methods and strategies for attracting, motivating, and retaining top talent.

Today’s guest was formerly a firefighter, paramedic, and hazardous materials technician. He got started in HR as a talent acquisition specialist for Princess Cruise Lines and, in fact, worked on the Diamond Princess, which I’m sure many of you will recognize from the news. He moved to Remote Medical International as its first HR VP, moved into tech as an HR VP for engineering at DocuSign, and then switched to support engineering and product as the director of HR VP at Datto.

HR Daily Advisor: Taylor, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley: Thank you for having me.

HR Daily Advisor: So, we’re going to talk about something you call the “medic’s method” as an approach to HR. So I think before we jump in, I just have to ask what led you away from being a hazardous material technician and firefighter paramedic and go into HR? Kind of an interesting move.

Bradley: Yeah, I’ve always told everyone that I was looking for a more adventurous career, so I decided to get into HR; it was an interesting transition. What I had found was that I had a very unique role at Princess Cruise Lines when I was a medic for them because, as we’ve seen in the news recently, every cruise ship has a medical center. I was a medic for them for just a couple of months, and I had this opportunity come up for a corporate position where they said, “We are looking for a talent acquisition specialist to recruit clinical staff around the world for us to have work on the ship.”

And so I jumped at the opportunity; I had never really been in recruiting before, so I figured I’d give it a try. I just immediately fell in love with talent acquisition and found that there was great growth opportunity, and it happened to be in an area that I love on the HR side. So, I decided to burn all the boats, as it were, and I let all of my medical licenses lapse so I didn’t have a plan B, and I went all in to HR.

HR Daily Advisor: So that’s very interesting. Firefighting paramedics as just material technicians are notoriously challenging jobs, and many of our audience members would say that HR is notoriously challenging. Did it help prepare you for this role?

Bradley: Absolutely. When I spoke at Disrupt HR, one of the things that I drew parallels to was that our days are traditionally never the same. When you’re a medic and you show up for work, you come prepared for anything and everything. And when people call 911, you may not have the ultimate solution to the issues that they’re facing, but it is your problem to help solve, and I think HR has a very similar role.

We have to come prepared every day for all sorts of different issues, both very serious and very lighthearted, but we have to help the business address and solve some of those challenges.

HR Daily Advisor: That’s a good answer. So why don’t you tell us about the so-called “medic’s method”?

Bradley: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. So this is something that I synthesized for HR, but it’s drilled into your head when you are in paramedic school how to address every situation that you come across because when you arrive on scene, it may be for a heart attack. It could be for one of my favorite calls ever, which is someone called 911 because there was a bird stuck in the person’s house.

So we had to make this makeshift net to help get this bird out of the house. Yeah, people call 911 for some pretty interesting things. And then, you also respond to more serious cases like car accidents and things like that. So again, you can’t be an expert in all those different types of responses—even bird control—so you have to apply a consistent method.

And so, I use the acronym when I speak to HR professionals “ADP,” just to help them memorize it pretty easily. It is assess the situation; determine what the needs are; and then, the most important part, provide an outcome. And when you arrive on scene as a paramedic, you have to get an understanding of, “Is this scene even safe for me to be here? Because if something happens to me, I can’t render or provide help to other folks.” And then also, get a good general idea of, “Is this bad, or is this something that can be treated on scene?” So just get a theme and then determine what the needs are.

Every patient, every situation has different needs, some of which a paramedic can provide and others a surgeon needs to provide. So my “provide an outcome” for that latter part would be getting someone to a surgeon as quickly as possible.

But if it is something that I can help deliver on scene, then I will provide that outcome as soon as possible. And so that ADP, that medic’s method, really applies to any scene that you go to, and it provides that muscle memory you need to become, essentially, a great problem-solver. And again, I feel, as a business partner, that’s my every day—you assess a situation. You know, someone’s coming to you complaining about how he or she wants new, free snacks in the business, or the person’s upset that those snacks were taken away.

So, assessing the situation is, OK, this is something that’s a bit lighthearted; we can work through this. Let’s figure out what the needs are and then provide an outcome. Or, you have employees come to you with some very serious concerns; there may be alleged harassment or some of the things that we see very commonly as business partners in the industry nowadays, and the same method applies. Assess that situation—it’s a very serious situation. What are the immediate needs? What are the long-term needs? And then, we provide that outcome.

HR Daily Advisor: That sounds very interesting. In the very beginning, you mentioned that when you’re assessing the situation as a medic, you have to determine whether it’s safe for you to be there or not. Is there something like that in HR? Like, what situations would not be safe for you to be there?

Bradley: Yeah, I’ll go on a bit more of a nonphysical thread. We’ll address some more of what we call the “HR land mines.” You will have employees or managers come to you and every HR professional listening—I’m sure you can think of a scenario in which this has happened, and someone asks you a question and it’s posed in a way that you know it’s a loaded question.

So, being an HR professional, what you do to that question or how you answer that question will carry a lot of weight. To me, when you get some of those questions, it’s immediate, like, I’m going to need more time to formulate that, or I don’t have the answer to that question right now; let’s percolate on it a bit more. And that’s an area where I think you have to judge the “safeness” of answering those types of questions and be able to navigate that.

And so, that’s where, when you assess that situation, you want to get a good understanding of why the question is being raised or why the challenge exists before you just dive right in to problem-solving mode.

HR Daily Advisor: Yeah. Interesting. I think I can imagine maybe one of those questions, like asking for personal information about another employee or something like that.

Bradley: Yeah. And certainly, you get those when someone is being promoted or “What did you think of that person’s response in the meeting?” or “Where is the strategy going?” And one of my favorite red flags is when someone comes and asks you about a really specific policy: “What does the policy say X, Y, Z?” And that’s an unusual question where the hairs on your neck raise up, and you’re like, “Well, why? I’ll help you understand that policy—that’s great—but why is that being asked?”

HR Daily Advisor:  Yeah, I don’t suppose you’d be comfortable giving me a specific example—obviously without naming names—of something like that?

Bradley: Yeah. I can give you some general ones that I think are applicable to all of us, like when you have someone come to you, an employee come to you, and the person may mention that he or she is having a tough time with his or her manager, but the person wants to see his or her job description, and I think that that’s always interesting when someone comes and asks for a specific job description.

Typically, when we get those types of questions, it can be either one of two things. One, someone wants to understand where he or she is and a career model framework so the person can expand his or her career. Or two, someone is having maybe a tiff with his or her manager, and he or she wants to be able to look at a job description to say, “That’s not in my job description.”

And so, I think those are situations in which, when you’re assessing why the question is being asked, it’s good to maybe get some more supporting facts before just giving the job description to someone. I hate giving raw data to individuals without helping them understand context. That’s a little bit more of a metrics kind of conversation, but in this case, if the employee is asking for the job description, maybe ask some supporting additional questions that can help you get a fuller picture, like, “Yeah, I will absolutely get that to you because you have a right to see that. Would it help if maybe we go through it together, and I can help you understand some points?”

And it could be either a great opportunity to talk about career development or a great opportunity to help an employee work through something with his or her manager that you may not have full context on.

HR Daily Advisor: Excellent. So it seems like your system is really designed for crisis management.

Bradley: In a way. I think that, going back to when you’re a medic, the same methodology can be applied to when a bird is in the house, which is not necessarily crisis management on our side, but it can also be applied to a mass casualty incident. When you arrive on a scene and there are 20 individuals who need assistance, that situation is pretty dire, and the needs are pretty dire, so to provide an outcome, you’re going to need additional help.

And so in the workplace, I can look at it not only from handling an investigation that you may be going into but also as a strategy. Let’s talk about head count. What do we need for the year? And what types of roles do we need upfront, and what types of roles are we going to need in Q4? And then, start to provide an outcome.

So, it can be used at a strategic level, but to your point, it can also be used for crisis management and more tactical situations.

HR Daily Advisor:  I imagine that when you were a medic, you encountered situations that maybe didn’t go the way you wanted them to, and part of being quick in action means that later on, you’re going to have to do a lot of decompressing and a lot of post analysis. Can you talk a little bit about that process and how you use that in HR?

Bradley: Yes. One of the most challenging parts when you’re a first responder is dealing with some of the very human costs and the human tragedy that exist around us every day that most individuals aren’t exposed to, and if they are exposed to a tragedy of some sort, it’s usually an isolated event in their life.

First responders are exposed to these types of issues every single day that they work. And it is incredibly important when you’re a medic to recognize that. When I first started as a medic, I was, goodness, 19 or 20, and when you’re at that particular age in your life, you tend to feel a little bit invincible.

And so, I think I ignored the toll that it took on me for some time, and it takes some good mentors in your life, and I had some great ones going through the fire service who said, “Hey, I appreciate that you’re 20 and that you know everything, but I need you to come chat with us about how that call went because that was pretty tough.”

And for me, I think some of the more difficult situations are when you deal with pediatric patients; not only is that clinically challenging to manage, but it’s also very difficult to work through that. And then also for me, I was very close with my grandparents, so anytime I had an elderly patient, I just always felt that I was taking care of my grandpa or grandma.

So, that was something that I had to decompress afterward. And fortunately, I had great mentors, but we also had a pretty consistent program wherein if you had a call about a death or an extreme trauma or domestic violence, there were outlets for you to talk to people afterward to relieve that stress.

On the HR side, to answer the second half of that question, when I worked at Remote Medical International, we supplied medical professionals in remote settings around the world, and this was a for-profit company, but that doesn’t change necessarily that mission or impact. And I had a lot of employees in war zones, active war zones.

I will never forget this call I received around 3:00 a.m. Seattle time during which I had an employee who was in Afghanistan, and she had been a victim of an IED attack. She was relatively OK, but the way she described this explosion was that there were limbs everywhere.

And it was shocking to me. One, getting a call that early in the morning is a shock to anyone, but I was her first call, and I knew I couldn’t just punt that to operations like, “Hey, you need to follow the triage on your call sheet.” That wasn’t a time to start going through policy with someone. And that was a situation when I needed to listen and to be there, meanwhile frantically trying to wake people up on Slack and on text as I continued to talk to her to get her the tactical help and security she needed.

But afterward, we made sure that we started implementing a process to provide PTSD counseling for employees, even if they hadn’t been through a scenario like that. Any of our war zone-bound employees had the option to utilize an employee assistance program tailored to those situations after they returned home.

HR Daily Advisor:  That must have been really challenging. One of the things we talk about when we talk about mental health and PTSD is the, what do you call it, the assumption that it has to be wartime-related. That, in fact, represents a very small portion of overall PTSD cases, which means that your HR professionals probably know people at their office who have PTSD that is probably undiagnosed.

And that’s a situation when you may have never seen it before, just like when you’re a medic and you haven’t seen something happen before and you have to encounter it for the first time, but being aware and being prepared can make all the difference as to how that goes down, right?

Bradley: Absolutely. One of the most life-changing classes for me as a medic was a mental health first responder course I went to. And when you’re a medic, you have to realize you’re not a doctor, and that’s really important that you recognize the limits of your clinical care.

But you need to be an expert at recognizing that something’s off and something needs professional help. And I think that still applies to HR professionals. And when I was a medic, most of my calls centered on addiction of some kind and/or tied directly to mental health issues. And it was eye-opening to me how limited care these individuals get or have access to or there’s a taboo around getting help for these types of issues. And HR professionals having an awareness level of these issues will help them deal with their workplace and hopefully get their employees the help they need if needed.

HR Daily Advisor: Yeah, another big one that I focused pretty heavily on coverage this last year in hopes of getting people ready for it is the opioid epidemic. I think there’s a misconception that people who are on opioids are lowlifes, but they’re not; it’s not accurate.

It’s not the case that it’s these lowlifes you’re going to run into in the workplace. In fact, as I’m sure you’re intimately aware, it’s everyday people, almost always people who had an injury or an accident or had some sort of medical procedure and got hooked to the pain medications that they were given or prescribed in a very aboveboard kind of way.

It’s a very subtle process that changes you from being someone who’s getting pain help to being addicted to the pain medication—one that’s very subtle and may not be obvious. Then, it costs exorbitant amounts of money to get those once you can’t get any more scripts, but you’re addicted, and then people move on down the road to illicit forms and other forms of opioids, which means that, other than how tragic it is, there are a lot of employees out there who are addicted to opioids, and they’re in the workplace, and they might overdose in the workplace.

Or, depending on how far along they are with their addiction, they might start doing certain things like stealing equipment and materials or missing time. And it’s this whole thing that no one really wants to talk about, but it’s really, really important that HR, in particular, be ready for when that kind of thing happens.

Bradley: Yeah, and I think you hit the nail on the head. I mean, right now, and I would say the vast majority of HR professionals listening, depending on the size of their company, there are current employees struggling with an addiction or a mental health issue of some kind at every organization. And there are varying degrees of that; there’s varying functionality to that.

But very often, this is not a decision, an active decision that someone is making in a clear head that he or she is going to abuse drugs. This is a health issue, and to treat it as anything other than a true healthcare crisis I think is dramatically under-selling the importance of the response that’s needed to this.

When I was a medic in very affluent areas in a community, most of my calls were opioid-related or mental health-related. It doesn’t have a socioeconomic class—this applies to anyone. I think sometimes, HR folks are nervous, thinking, “Well, I’m not a medical professional. I don’t want to get involved in something like that.”

But people having awareness training around these types of issues I think is key so they can at least recognize and offer the appropriate sources or leave or help that’s available to employees, especially without creating a taboo around it.

If you offer an EAP to employees, it just feels like apprehension. “Well, I don’t want to reach out to them because they’re going to report back to you and tell you all my issues.” We have to make sure that we’re giving people an accurate description of what an EAP is and how they can utilize it to help them.

HR Daily Advisor: Were there challenges in the HR field that you weren’t prepared for when you got there?

Bradley: Of course. I think we all go through that, and it was the same when I was a medic—more so when I was a medic because I think I was much younger, so you have a different mind-set when you’re 20.

However, when I got into HR, I think it’s important to recognize a few things, and I am forever grateful for how much one of my mentors influenced my development as a business partner. I would say you need to identify what the business’s challenges are and adopt them as your own and help them utilize HR tools to achieve their objectives while also being the guardrails for them around policy and around regulations and ethics and things of that nature.

But when I first started in HR, you have this tendency of, “Oh my gosh, I have all of these bright and shiny HR tools, and I must use every single one of them regardless if the business needs it.” And so, I think when I started as a business partner very early on, I felt, “How much HR stuff can I accomplish?” versus, “How can I help the business accomplish more by utilizing surgically HR tools and practices?”

HR Daily Advisor: Earlier, we were talking burnout for medics and how it can take awhile to catch up to you, but you had a great support system. A lot of HR professionals are an HR department of one. There really isn’t a support system; the person’s supervisor might be the CEO, and just like in the medical field, especially in a company that’s maybe growing or going through a merger or is maybe dealing with canceling events because of the coronavirus, these people are under pressure.

Other than their mental health, which is critically important, the health of the entire business is at stake if that person crumbles or begins to crumble because it doesn’t always happen all at once. What advice do you have for someone who maybe finds himself or herself in that position?

Bradley: I think back to something my professor in medic school said, which is you always have to remember “me,” “us,” and “them.” And what he meant by that is that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your team, and then you have to take care of your team before you can take care of others.

That’s something that stuck with me, and I will admittedly say that early on in my HR career, I very much focused on the us and them and forgot me. And that led into my mid-20s; I remember going to the hospital because I had ulcers. And at that point, I was putting in 100-hour weeks for, gosh, I think it was almost 3 months at that point in a row. And I was surviving on caffeine, Red Bull, coffee, and horrible food.

It caught up to me; hindsight is always 20/20, but one thing that I’ve really focused on now is remembering to balance me, us, and them. But knowing when to ask for help is key not just for responding to, “Hey, now I’m in the hospital and I can’t do anything,” but before that. Like, if you’re doing 100 hours a week, you probably need to start advocating to get additional help on your team because you will break at some point, and if you do, you can’t serve the business.

Sometimes, there’s crunch time when we work more hours in a week than others, and we have to work with those ebbs and flows, but recognizing when it starts to take a toll is key because again, if you’re the only HR person, you’re a single point of failure. You need to be very cognizant of taking care of yourself so you can continue to take care of the team and the business.

HR Daily Advisor: That’s a great answer. I went through something very similar. For me, it was a panic attack that I thought was a heart attack. I’m only 36 years old, and this was maybe 3 years ago, but the symptoms are the same; I mean, I had them all. I had the pulsing pain in my arm, my left arm and my back were numb, and I was nauseated. And one of the symptoms, well, you know, of course, is the feeling of impending doom, right?

Bradley: Yes.

HR Daily Advisor: From an amusing standpoint, that, I think, is probably my favorite symptom because it’s so out there. I mean, you could feel that anytime for any reason, but I definitely had that. I’ve taken a lot of steps since then to get better, but it was the same kind of thing. I was just pushing myself way too hard. And you think you can just do it forever, and you can’t. And when it comes crashing down, it can be very expensive to deal with. I mean, I managed to get myself to the emergency room, but those people charge crazy amounts of money for you to be perfectly OK physically.

Bradley: It is. And one point on that is that, unfortunately, as a medic, part of the job is being around people in their final moments and before they pass away. And I have never—and this may sound sarcastic, but this is a very important point—been around someone in his or her final moments and heard him or her say, “Gosh, I wish I would have worked on PowerPoints more,” or, “I wish I would have done more transfer forms.” Never, never have I had that.

Every time that I’ve had in-depth conversations with folks before they pass, who have a really unique perspective on life at that moment, they have always said, “More time with my friends and my family,” every time. And I implore everyone to really take a moment to consider that.

So, they focus again on the “me,” and that can’t be entirely right, like we still have to deliver on our jobs, but it’s so important because I totally empathize with your story, having been in the hospital for a panic attack myself.

HR Daily Advisor: Yeah, it’s a very eye-opening experience—we’ll just leave it at that. And I know when we’re talking about all this medical stuff—this is more of a note to the listeners—that it gets pretty heavy. But it’s also important to remember that these are kinds of experiences that your employees have in their lives, and they’re necessarily talking about it, and it’s not visible and obvious.

So just as you, as an HR professional, are going through the challenges of your day, it’s important to remember that that person sitting in the seat in front of you who maybe is having a performance issue or something like that also could have had any of those same challenges or worse.

Bradley: And I think this was probably the first time anyone who previously worked at the company that I am describing where I had this event had heard of it. I was afraid to tell anybody at that point because I was like, “I can’t be seen as someone who is, I guess, human.” So, employees do an amazing job at hiding these things, so I think it’s our job to get out there and make sure we’re doing what we can.

HR Daily Advisor: Absolutely. Well, Taylor, thanks so much. It was really enjoyable talking with you.

Bradley: It was great talking with you. Thanks for having me on.

HR Daily Advisor:  Absolutely. Listeners, we are always interested in suggestions you might have for what HR Works should cover next. Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter at HR Works podcast. You can also reach out to me directly at jdavis@blr.com with any thoughts or concerns or if you just want to say hi. We’re always interested in any feedback you have—it’s really valuable to us. Thanks so much. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.