Ask the Career Doctor: Retaining Women in a Post COVID-19 World

With the right approaches implemented proactively, HR leaders can help support and expand the role of women in a post-COVID-19 era.

Q: As an HR manager, I am concerned about the “turnover tsunami” that’s expected once the COVID-19 pandemic draws to a close. The result of pent-up turnover nationwide seems to be an inevitable consequence of the current crisis. In particular, I’m especially concerned about losing talented women. How can we best keep and grow our pipeline of talented working women in a post-COVID age?

A: It’s true, both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have been and will continue to be particularly susceptible to losing talented women. The National Women’s Law Center recently reported an astounding 865,000 women left the workforce last September as children returned to school. In that same month, we returned to a 1987 level of female participation in the workforce. That’s more than 30 years of progress erased. Women have taken a serious toll and the threat of losing key female talent is only likely to get worse as COVID-19 ends and the job market opens.

So what can you, as an HR manager, do?

Support women in narrowing their focus. The pandemic has taken a toll on women; they are burnt out from the unprecedented juggle of working remotely and home-schooling, while shouldering many family responsibilities. Help women realize that success in their job doesn’t mean they have to boil the ocean. Emphasize that simply focusing on what matters most to the organization is far more important than putting in extra hours.

Create a safe, non-judgmental place where women can open up. As an HR manager, you must always be ready and available as a safe space for women to vent. In some cases, you can be a source of support in negotiating or maintaining flexible work schedules. You should encourage women to suspend self-judgment as well. We’re all doing the best we can.

Increase exposure for top female talent within the organization, especially for women who continue to work remotely. Identify the senior leaders who are key influencers and to whom these women should be introduced.  Facilitate a “warm intro” so they can meet, although you, as the HR manager, shouldn’t feel the need to be present in the conversation. These introductions should spur mentoring and further the opportunity for rising women leaders to learn and contribute.

Cultivate a culture of clear and strong feedback-giving. Women tend to receive more transactional feedback (“you did a nice job in that meeting”) than aspirational feedback (“let’s discuss where you want to be in a year and how we can get you there.”) It can be hard for women to receive constructive feedback from their supervisors, so they must be trained on how to ask for it. Managers also need training on how to bring openness and transparency to crucial conversations.

Measure your success. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. This means you must understand if your strategy is working in encouraging women to stay. If it isn’t, know how to pivot to other strategies such as more regular meetings and candid conversations. If you value women with your organization, this is an important step. For example, it is helpful to compare female attrition levels before and after implementing certain changes and programs.

As an HR manager, you have every right to be concerned about losing valuable female talent in a post COVID-19 era.  But with the right approaches implemented proactively, you can help your organization stave off this important talent drain and create a workplace that supports and expands the role of women.