Are You Ready for Another?
More than one-quarter of companies surveyed recently have no plans to address workforce readiness in the event of a disaster of Superstorm Sandy's magnitude, and experts say HR leaders need to do more than just tweet or text updates to employees when disaster strikes.
By Larry Keller
The New York Stock Exchange closed for two days, thousands of commercial flights were canceled and businesses were shuttered last week after a calamitous visit from Superstorm Sandy. For human resource professionals, it was an opportunity to dust off workforce disaster-readiness plans or start work on one in order to communicate with displaced employees.
Companies are still grappling with exactly how best to maintain contact with workers, customers and vendors in the event of a natural disaster. But all agree that a readiness plan isn't something that can be cobbled together during a crisis.
"You really do have to do it ahead of time," says George Boué, vice president for HR at Stiles, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. company that manages commercial properties and construction sites, and has weathered multiple hurricanes and tropical storms.
Before a plan is activated, "all employees need to understand what the company will do for them, and what the firm expects of them," says Ray Thomas, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington who oversees the management and technology consultant's business assurance office.
Many businesses have no disaster plan. In its 2012 Survey of Workforce Readiness: When Disaster Strikes, Mercer, a New York-based HR consulting firm, found that 38 percent of the 142 companies that responded worldwide said they had no plan to address workforce readiness in the event of a disaster. The respondents varied in size: Nearly half had fewer than 1,000 employees, while 18 percent employed more than 20,000 people.
In the United States, Hurricane Irene and tornados were the disasters cited most as precipitating the activation of companies' readiness plans. The human resources department was most often charged with assembling and distributing updates on general information, health and safety news, specific work updates, evacuation procedures and other information to employees in the impacted area, or to all workers, the survey found.
About three in eight companies that participated in the survey made changes to their plans after disasters in 2011 that included the Japan earthquake, tsunami and floods. These included adding provisions for responding to a citywide power outage, implementing a work-from-home strategy and starting an emergency committee to develop the policy.
At Stiles, the company uses a telephone tree to contact workers in times of an emergency. From managers on down, each employee calls another designated employee in a sort of phone pyramid.
Stiles also leaves a recording on the company switchboard that is continually updated with information its 300 employees can access for the latest information, Boué says.
Cell phones work well in a relatively minor emergency such as a fire, but can be problematic during a large natural disaster, says Lee Goldstein, president of Business Contingency Group, a Los Angeles-based hazard mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery organization. Cell-phone towers get toppled. The phones need charging and there may be no power. And the sheer volume of calls during an emergency can make it impossible to make a connection.
One solution to the latter, Goldstein says, is to have a 1-800 telephone number based in another part of the country that employees can call for information.
Text messaging also has a better chance of reaching recipients than phone calls or emails because their limit on number of characters enables easier transmission, Goldstein says.
Goldstein cautions that texting one's employees with disaster updates carries the risk that one of the recipients will use the information to disseminate rumors. At that point, the company has lost control of the message, he says.
True, but it's not an insurmountable problem, says Karen Masullo, executive vice president of social media at Firestorm, a Roswell, Ga.-based crisis preparedness and management consulting firm. "You have to be very careful how you use those characters when you put out a message," she says. She suggests directing employees via Twitter to the company's website for more thorough information.
"Twitter is for short emergency messages," Masullo says. "Facebook allows you to give more information. Your audience is probably the same in both places, so you want to use both."
Social media needs to be monitored and managed, Masullo says. Companies make a big mistake if they think they can have a tech-savvy intern or a junior marketing employee oversee social media in an emergency. "Social media requires exceptional maturity, especially during a crisis." The reputation of a company's brand is at stake, she adds.
Stiles doesn't use social media during emergencies, Boué says. "Some people don't understand social media, don't embrace it," he explains. Stiles provides key managers with satellite phones, adds Boué́, who is co-chair of the company's hurricane committee. The committee is comprised of a cross-section of departments, including HR and IT. "IT is critical," Stiles says.
"One approach isn't going to be sufficient," says Thomas. His firm uses multiple communications methods to reach workers, including text messaging, the company intranet and hotlines.
Booz Allen has offices in several countries and throughout the United States. Each has an incident command team to oversee emergency preparedness. Thomas' division provides them with a template for disaster readiness, which they customize as needed. "It's based on a risk assessment for each office," Thomas says.
Most companies' readiness plans include provisions for at least some employees to telecommute, according to the Mercer survey.
"It's a hard issue," says Ed Foulke, a partner in the Atlanta office of the national labor law firm Fisher & Phillips, and a former head of OSHA. "Do they need special equipment? Then it's a more complicated issue." It's even dicier, he adds, if an employee has access to trade secrets or other sensitive data working away from the office without the firewall protections in effect at the office.
Regardless of its provisions, readiness plans need to be reviewed periodically.
Stiles' hurricane committee meets every year before the start of hurricane season to discuss the plan and to make sure employee phone numbers are current. Goldstein and Masullo recommend that companies conduct tabletop exercises -- perhaps annually -- to review how to respond to a disaster.
Companies are usually adaptable in following a plan once it is activated. Forty-five percent of those responding to the Mercer survey said they followed their plans somewhat, and 20 percent said they didn't follow them at all.
Goldstein suggests HR managers keep notes once a plan is activated on how their company deviated from it, and refer to those notes when the plan comes up for its next review.
"You need to be flexible," Goldstein says. "Take it as a guide."