Benefits Column

Tragedy in Paris: Addressing the Human Side of Crises

When tragic events such as last week's terrorist attacks in the City of Lights unfold, employees are naturally going to look to their employers for information, direction and comfort. Are you ready to respond?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015
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I was about to send my latest benefits column to my editor around 4 p.m. on Nov. 13 when a notification popped up on my iPhone. There was a shooting in Paris. The ensuing flurry of messages indicated something monumental was happening, and the material in my column felt increasingly trivial by comparison.

So I find myself once again compelled to write about helping employees cope during times of crisis. Prior circumstances included the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the October 2011 rogue Connecticut snowstorm and the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

Every time I re-examine the topic of crisis management and employee benefits, a similar pattern emerges around what is most important. First on the list is for HR and benefits leaders to champion the human side of crisis. The Society for Human Resource Management points out in its 2005 white paper that the organizations need to pay greater attention to the impact of critical events on employees, their families and the community.

David Whitehouse, a physician and recognized leader in neuroscience and behavioral health, notes that employees turn to their employers for help as if they were part of their extended families. "After 9/11," he says, "we saw people seek out their employer's advice regarding how to talk with their children about the event."

The best place for HR executives to meet this employee need is to prepare before a crisis strikes. Start with a review of HR policies, procedures and programs specific to crisis management. Make certain there's a readily accessible list (with redundancies) of your company’s employees and, ideally, where they are located at any given time. Disseminate a catalogue (through multiple channels) of external resources designed to assist employees with issues such as travel -- including helping employees get to safe places -- and emotional support services, including employee-assistance programs and/or local mental-health services.

While preparation is key to being able to respond efficiently to a crisis, employee communication is critical to any plan’s success – and social media has become a leading way for employers to quickly reach employees, their families and customers.

Case in point: About 6,000 Airbnb employees and hosts were attending the company's annual Airbnb Open conference in Paris when the company and its CEO, Brian Chesky, took to Twitter and Facebook to communicate with attendees about how to remain safe and where to go if they no longer had a place to stay. Airbnb also updated customers who wanted to cancel their travel plans to France through the same social-media channels and the company website.

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Crisis communication, however, is not simply meant for the people directly impacted. Co-workers want to know about the status of their colleagues, and they may also need assistance dealing with their own emotions about the events at hand.

The University of Connecticut used Instagram to relay that its students and faculty member in Paris were safe, and to share that the university was "reaching out to students from France and surrounding nations who are currently at UConn to offer them any assistance they might need."

Finally, employer flexibility, spontaneity and willingness to shift from an established policy help both the company and employees alike cope with unanticipated circumstances.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, I was almost 3,000 miles from home. My employer had a list of each employee who was traveling. We received a broadcast voicemail message from the president and CEO that did three things brilliantly: (1) He told us how saddened and shocked he was by the events; (2) he assured us the company would do everything it could to help us get home as quickly as the circumstances would allow; and (3) he conveyed he was suspending the established paid-time-off policy so people could take their time safely returning home and to the workplace.

Every company wants to keep its employees healthy, happy and safe. Preparation, communication and flexibility allow organizations to maintain this commitment to employees during times of crisis.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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