HR Leadership Column

When -- Not If -- Tragedy Strikes

While you can't have a detailed plan for every possible catastrophe that might befall your organization, the best time to focus on the issue is before you ever need to.

Monday, June 10, 2013
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Like most Americans, I watched with horror as the media reported on tornadoes developing in Oklahoma, followed by the human and property devastation left in the wakes of the tornadoes. They occurred shortly after the terrorist explosions at the Boston marathon, which followed the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, which followed Hurricane Sandy, which followed -- well, you get my drift.

The fact is we all could find ourselves in the middle of a disaster that impacts not just our families and our homes, but where we work. We've all heard stories from our HR colleagues -- stories that aren't necessarily about the massive natural disasters or horrendous criminal actions listed above. Rather, stories about a fire or flood of a single business, domestic violence that's manifested with a workplace shooting, or a corporate jet that crashes with the company's executive team on board. 

While there's no way to predict when a particular disaster might occur, you can predict that disasters will occur.

The question is: Have you done anything in your organization to actually anticipate and plan for them?  Beyond regular fire drills and evacuation plans?

I know it's not easy. It isn't as if HR professionals don't have enough to do -- most have growing responsibilities with dwindling resources. But if there ever was a time HR would be to be called on to play a leadership role, it would be when an organization and its employees were grappling with the aftermath of a disaster; when it's unclear if the business would survive, jobs would be lost, or employees would get the help they so desperately need. 

Doesn't that deserve some attention?

Of course, you can't have a detailed plan for every possible catastrophe that might befall your organization. But just because you can't predict everything, you shouldn't live in denial that anything might happen. 

Spend some time doing a risk analysis for your organization. Every organization is different and every industry has its own unique risks to consider. Risks associated with a steel-manufacturing facility will be different from a construction contractor. Risks to a company located in a flood-prone area may be different from those located in areas that have fires. 

Consider designating a crisis-management team, providing its members with regular reminders of their responsibilities. If something happened, who will be the senior executive who can make decisions on behalf of the organization? Will he or she be local or corporate? Who will handle the financial aspects and be able to access and disburse funds to deal with the catastrophe, and to track the costs of recovery? Who will be responsible for dealing with the media, and doing so in such a way to ensure no privacy rights are violated? Who will be able to access personnel records, so affected individuals and their families can be contacted? 

Perhaps most importantly, consider developing a communication plan and establishing the communication tools you'd use in the event of a disaster. Who will be responsible for providing information to employees? Will you be able to communicate in multiple languages if your workforce is diverse? How will employees get information on what's happened or happening, not just with the company but with their colleagues? Do you have emergency contact information for your employees? Will it be published on the company intranet or a password protected site, posted on bulletin boards, or through the use of social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter? Or all of the above?

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Recognizing that disasters can damage the emotional, financial and legal health of your workforce, how prepared are you to help employees deal with these issues? Do you have a viable employee-assistance plan -- one that the employees are actually aware of and make use of? How equipped is your EAP provider to deal with a potential surge in demand? 

My point with this list of questions isn't to overwhelm. It's to highlight the fact that most of them can be answered with the benefit of time and deliberation -- and time and deliberation won't be a luxury available in the wake of a disaster. The best time to focus on the issue is before you ever need to.

I admit that I learned of the importance of disaster planning the hard way -- I sat in my office in Alexandria, Va., and watched the black smoke from the burning Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. I will never forget the terrible smell of burning jet fuel. We let employees go home, and our office was closed for days -- as was most of Washington. 

I will never forget the challenge of answering many of these same questions. While we had planned for some, we had to work through others in real time. 

I want to save you from that experience.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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