CHRO Fihliwe Molefi explains why Covid still impacts workplace mental health

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CHRO Fihliwe Molefi explains why Covid still impacts workplace mental health

Nov 30, 2023 | Interviews

The Chief Human Resources Officer of Peermont Fihliwe Molefi was born in the Katlehong Township in Ekurhuleni in the 70’s. She attended Thembalethu and Intokozo Primary Schools before joining Lethukuthula Secondary School where she matriculated in 1988. Her schooling during the apartheid years was characterised by normal township harassment by police as the community regularly rioted against the regime. As such it was rare for children in black schools to pass matric at the first attempt and as such, she did not bother to apply for university studies.

To everyone’s surprise she was one of the few matriculants eligible to join university but failure to apply to Wits University meant that she could not get in to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce degree in accounting which was her then desire. She was advised to go the Technikon Northern Transvaal (TNT) in Pretoria. She joined a queue formed for those wishing to enrol for a qualification in public administration. Once the class was full, everyone still on the queue was sent away.

Dejected on her way out of the campus, a lecturer asked her how she had fared in matric. On learning that she had passed both accounting and English, he recommended her to join the human resources course. She obliged, planning to just do it for a year before joining Wits for the BCom Accounting degree the following year. She fell in love with HR a career she met by accident and decided to complete her studies, graduating first with a National Diploma then a BTech degree. Because of disruptions caused by student unrest at TNT, Fihliwe obtained these qualifications at Penninsula Technikon in Cape Town. She further obtained her master’s in human resources.

Joining Unilever

Fihliwe joined the Human Resources department of Unilever in Johannesburg in 1994 as a human resources administrator because she was did not have a university degree at the time. The Unilever policy did not allow non university degree individuals on the graduate development programme, but due to her high performance she was the first non-degree person to be promoted to HR officer and included into the = programme.

Fihliwe joined De Beers in 1998 as a senior HR officer responsible for remuneration and benefits. It was a specialist role meaning she was tasked with overseeing only one aspect of HR which became monotonous. If she needed an hr generalist role she would have had to relocate to the mines and she was not keen on leaving the city. She instead joined the Gauteng Gambling Board (GGB) which was in its infancy in 2001.

Fihliwe says. ‘I enjoyed taking part in the development and developing company policies, deciding on the organisational structure and eventually sourcing the relevant skills for the organisation.

In 2003, Fihliwe joined Tsogo Sun Emnotweni Casino in Nelspruit for nine months before the hotel and Casino group placed her as the Human Resources manager at their flagship property – Monte Casino in Johannesburg. She worked in this role for three and half years before being tempted away to join the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) as the HR Manager.

‘I had reached my ceiling at Monte and felt like I needed to move on. In my first month at ACSA, I felt like I was learning new things, but by the second month I knew I had made a mistake. As a parastatal company, the decision making was way too slow for me, and I was coming from a fast-paced organisation and the systems felt a little dated compared to what I was exposed to.

Whilst contemplating what to do, she was offered an opportunity to go back to Tsogo Sun but felt it would have been a step back for Fihliwe, however she was willing to rather do that because the work at ACSA did not excite her at all. Fortunately, the position of Group HR Executive opened up at Peermont which she grabbed with both arms. She has held onto the role for the last fifteen years and has no immediate plans of letting go.

Impact of the pandemic

Fihliwe says the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on work at many organisations and Peermont is no exception. The casino group closed shop for many months, and this meant that many employees took pay cuts or went without a salary during the hard lockdown. This affected families as some of the staff were eventually retrenched. The process had an impact on those that left and those that remained because the organisation had to function with less numbers and the trauma of seeing people leave involuntarily.

‘This means that we have a significant problem of mental health and we have seen a number of people going through depression. It is not easy to come to work when you are struggling to make ends meet and this has resulted in other issues such as an increase in abuse and theft. COVID brought about a lot of unintended consequences meaning we can no longer manage people in a straight line. We need to provide interventions that are critical and that may differ from person to person which is a difficult thing to do.’

‘Another issue arising from COVID is that of the hybrid work environment. Although it is easy for office workers and management to work remotely, the challenge we have as a hospitality and gaming business, most functions cannot be performed remotely, as results if we opt for only office and management to work only remotely, we will be leaving a vacuum as this means staff are not managed, but we also cannot be in a situation where we do not allow remote work completely, as the remote work or some hybrid form of work has become a competitive edge for talent retention.’

How can an entity craft a successful strategy in this environment?

‘A successful strategy is one that is well defined,’ Fihliwe says. ‘There are various views on what that definition is. Some say it is an analysis of the present so as to anticipate the changes that need to be made while others see it as something that is difficult to predict as it talks to an organisation’s future. In my view strategy is the actions that will be taken to determine the direction of the organisation. It involves a precise diagnosis of the problem and determining how it will be solved and what are the guiding principles. An organisation needs to take coherent action in order to deliver on what they say is their guiding policy. There are three elements that will make your strategy successful – diagnosis, guiding policy and an outline of actions to be taken.’

Fihliwe advises upcoming professionals to focus on hard work because without it ‘you will not get anywhere’. It is an ethic that cannot be understated in the quest to rise through the ranks. Furthermore, she says it is important to understand yourself and be true to who you are. There are various inhibitions that will come your way and when young there is the temptation to go with the flow.

‘You need to resist the temptation to remain in the comfort zone. You should fight for your space and actively seek more. If I remained reserved and did what others were saying, I would not have progressed. It is important to be authentic because that is what will get you further. Have the drive to propel yourself forward without fearing failure because you will  in many instances fail but as long as you pick yourself up, failure is part of the process.’

Asked about one surprising thing about her, Fihliwe admits she has a great fear of cats.

‘It is a deadly fear,’ she laughs. ‘All phobias are irrational, but this one is hard to explain because I don’t know where it comes from. Even the sight of a picture of a cat is enough to give me the shivers. It really surprises people because I have a very strong personality, yet if I go to someone’s home and they have a cat, I would leave immediately.’

Once Fihliwe and her husband were on holiday in Durban. After an evening stroll and as they made their way back down a steep incline towards the hotel entrance, she spotted a cat making its way up the street towards them. She screamed and made a beeline in the opposite direction, with her husband chasing after her to calm her down. The commotion amused the hotel guests, many of who came out to see what was going on and the guard at the main gate also hurried towards her trying to convince her that the furry pet was harmless. All efforts to calm her down proved futile, they moved to a different hotel that very evening.

QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS FOR FIHLIWE

Dream car – ‘The one I currently drive – a Porsche Cayenne GTS’

Favourite restaurant – ‘Let me say Reign, because it is at Peermont’s property – Emperors Place. Outside the company, I love Signature.’

Favourite holiday destination – ‘Paris, France. I have been there twice.’

Favourite book – ‘Failing Forward by John C. Maxwell’.

Favourite movie – ‘Woman King’

Favourite meal – ‘Nowergian Salmon  and Linguine’

Favourite app – ‘Waze! Because I am terrible with directions.’

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