Pity the HR worker

Fully Charged

Hey all, it's Olivia. The last five months have been hellish for American workers. Mass layoffs, school closures and shuttered offices have obliterated office life, and a new wave of U.S. coronavirus infections have dashed hopes for a return to normalcy any time soon. On Monday, Alphabet Inc.'s Google told employees they could plan to work from home for the next 12 months, and other Big Tech firms don't expect to reopen offices until sometime next year.

All this has put a lot of pressure on one of corporate America's most unloved departments: human resources. Tech companies' HR workers have been faced with far bigger and more complicated jobs since March. They've had to help people navigate the shift to remote work, and walk foreign employees through increasingly precarious visa processes. They're handling pandemic-related communications, including about job cuts and furloughs, in the middle of an economic crisis. And they've been tasked with adapting corporate culture and etiquette to weird new conditions, like a workplace that exists mainly on video chat.

"I haven't experienced anything like this in my 20 years," said Cathy Rankin, an HR director at online travel giant Expedia Group Inc. Rankin said that her department has essentially been on hyperdrive since the start of the pandemic—tasks that would typically take months to accomplish are now expected to be completed in weeks. The old HR policy handbook no longer applies because the entire job description has changed.

For starters, HR professionals' roles now involve a lot more morale-boosting exercises like setting up remote yoga classes and virtual mindfulness sessions. But the shifts go beyond the pandemic. Strained relationships between corporate leaders and their workers were already bubbling over in tech before coronavirus.

The industry's failures to confront cases of sexual harassment that led to its #MeToo reckoning fall at least in part at the feet of HR, and more recently the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how few Black people work in leadership roles at tech companies. For some employees pushing for change, it can feel like HR is aggravating those issues rather than alleviating them. Increasingly, tech companies say they're working to reevaluate policies around diversity.

Most individual HR workers feel that they're fighting the good fight. And now, many are facing a particularly daunting challenge in the form of the Trump administration's harsh stance on immigration. The White House's executive order banning the issuance of new work visas until 2021 has disrupted hiring for many tech companies, which heavily rely on a stream of foreign workers.

Within an hour after the announcement, HR departments began receiving hundreds or thousands of emails from their own foreign-born employees. Suddenly HR workers are being asked impossible questions like, Should I fly home to India to care for my parents who have fallen critically ill with Covid-19, even if that means being locked out of the U.S. for at least the remainder of the year? The White House's policies have stranded many existing workers overseas, unable to re-enter the country after what they thought were routine trips. Such cases require significant HR resources, though there's only so much companies can do. 

Meanwhile, staffing decisions have taken on added weight: Foreigners on certain specialized temporary work visas like the H-1B can only remain in the U.S. legally for 60 days without being paid a certain salary, making them particularly vulnerable if they are furloughed or lose their jobs.

Immigration lawyer Nandini Nair, who has been consulting with companies on their workers' visa status, said more than one HR leader she worked with has quit since the start of the pandemic because of the stress.

"As HR professionals we are IT people, marketers, support staff—and now therapists and counsellors, too," said Misael Martinez, an HR manager at software firm Qualitest Group.

Like many other tech firms, Qualitest has a big foreign workforce and many of its employees are trapped abroad. "They are losing hope that they will be able to come back into the country," he said, "and even our words, saying 'We will do our best', is not resonating anymore."Olivia Carville

If you read one thing

Twitter executives have been warned repeatedly about the growing number of employees and contractors who can reset accounts and override users' security settings—which makes the latest high-profile hack even more worrisome, Bloomberg reports. Going back as far as 2015, Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey and the board are said to have been warned on multiple occasions about policing the 1,500 workers who have the ability to reset accounts, review user breaches and respond to potential content violations.

Concerns about Twitter's ability to protect user data deepened this month after hackers hijacked the accounts of some of its most famous users, including political leaders, business titans and celebrities, as part of an apparent cryptocurrency scam.

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

Amazon is under investigation by California public health authorities after a warehouse worker accused the company of not doing enough to protect staff through the pandemic.

Zuckerberg prepares to argue before Congress that the weakening of American tech will only help China dominate the industry, according to people familiar with the CEO's thinking.

South Korean health officials have unleashed their version of the Navy Seals—elite teams of epidemiologists, database specialists and laboratory technicians to quell the spread of Covid-19. And it's working.


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