HR Management & Compliance

North Pole’s CHRO Says ‘Don’t Let 2020 Defeat You’

The year 2020 has been rough on everyone, and HR departments around the globe have been working tirelessly to take care of their employees and employers. One HR manager in particular—I’ve written about her a few times over the years—is relieved not to have to deal with her company’s holiday party, and I quote: “That’s IT’s problem this year.” Instead of focusing on parties, I’ve obtained an exclusive interview with a member of an HR department located a fair piece north of here. She has asked to remain unidentified.

Source: Dragon Images / shutterstock

Conversation with North Pole HR

Interviewer: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Your employer runs a big operation here at the North Pole. How many employees do you have?

HR: Well, I’m pleased to be able to talk to you. We have around 100,000 employees. We are the biggest employer in the region. We still have a lot in common with your readership because we follow U.S. laws.

Interviewer: Your workforce famously became unionized in 2004 after an elf’s lament led to an organized movement. How have your relations with the union been this year?

HR: We’ve worked closely with our union this year as we’ve had to address and anticipate problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic. We developed protocols for reporting symptoms, as well as for returning to work at the end of quarantine. We clarified how our various leave policies—such as paid time off and sick leave—could be used.

We also developed a policy for traveling to “hot spots.” As any employer would, we held meetings with our employees to explain the changes. The travel restriction was one of the most difficult issues we dealt with—try explaining “hot spots” to an elf because anything below the 80th parallel is “simply balmy” as far as they’re concerned.

Interviewer: Fair point. Yours is an assembly-line operation. Has that been a challenge?

HR: We had to make a lot of workplace adjustments. Like others, we’ve issued personal protective equipment (PPE) to our employees and have instituted other infection controls such as handwash stations and the distribution of hand sanitizer. In terms of the line itself, we had a big stoppage in April before everyone in the world really had a handle on measures that could be taken to control spread of the infection. We installed plexiglass dividers between our workers on the line, and we staggered shifts.

Our production loss in April means you will see fewer baby dolls this year, making the number of grinning clown marionettes seem out of proportion—but that’s 2020 for you.

Interviewer: One of the legal concerns being focused on by employers is age discrimination. Has that been a concern for your boss?

HR: Well, our youngest employee is 346 years old, so our whole population is both covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and “at risk.” Our boss in particular, who is well-over 1,700, has additional comorbidities—he’s prediabetic, obese, and a smoker. Rumors spread that his “Ho-Ho-Ho” was actually a coughing fit, but we quelled that one. He’s been trying to set a better example for the workforce by really working with our employee assistance program (EAP) to develop healthier habits.

We have a great boss, and our employees have been very concerned about him. We had to explain to them that we couldn’t protect him by requiring him to take involuntary leave or do mandatory telework because that would violate the law.

Interviewer: How have you handled your employees who are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

HR: We have been monitoring guidance from a variety of sources—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and our local health department. The ADA prohibits disability-related inquiries and medical examinations except under very specific circumstances, so we cannot inquire whether any of our employees have compromised immune systems or chronic health conditions.

We have sent employees who are displaying COVID-19 symptoms home and have inquired about symptoms such as fever, chills, sore throat, cough, and shortness of breath. In line with current EEOC and CDC guidelines, we’ve conducted daily temperature checks, and we have done some testing of the workforce. Antibody tests haven’t been used because they violate the ADA. They are more invasive tests and really show who has already had COVID-19 rather than who is a direct-threat concern.

Interviewer: How has your workforce dealt with the mental stresses associated with the pandemic?

HR: Well, let me tell you, the use of sugar and caffeine by our elves really spiked when homeschooling started back in March. We’ve tried very hard to make sure the mental health and addiction resources in our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) are understood by our workforce. It has made a difference.

You may not know this, but elves don’t do well in isolation. The “troll” who had issues with the billy goats a few generations back was actually an elf who had been telecommuting for 14 years. That was a lesson for us, so we were already using technology to keep our quarantined telecommuters active and involved. We set clear expectations for telework, and by keeping the communication channels open, we have maintained productivity, and spirits are generally high.

Interviewer: The year 2020 was disruptive in a number of ways, not just because of COVID-19. Did any civil unrest affect your workforce?

HR: We had our fair share for sure. Maskers versus nonmaskers was a big issue for a while. It was especially trying for us because of the ears, you know. We got that figured out after implementing training on proper mask use, and I’m proud of how our workers are taking this virus seriously.

Interviewer: Do you have a final message you would like to send to your compatriots in HR departments around the globe?

HR: My message is one of hope. Learn from 2020—don’t let it defeat you. Care for others, and care for yourself. Choose to shine your flashlight rather than engage in combative discourse. You decide what you put into the world, so here’s to humankind. Choose to be both human and kind.

Vanessa L. Towarnicky is an Attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC in Morgantown, West Virginia. You can reach her at 304-290-0818 or vanessa.towarnicky@steptoe-johnson.com.