HR Administration

HR: The Guardians of Your Employees’ Galaxy

By Karen Garavatti

Oct. 8, 2015

When an earthquake hit Japan in 2011, crisis communication became critical for companies. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

When one thinks about who should take charge during a disaster, perhaps the human resources department isn’t the first unit that comes to mind, but HR can and should play a critical role in communicating with workers in the event of an emergency.

Take Tohoku, Japan, for example.

In 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan and caused a devastating tsunami to hit Tohoku causing confusion, chaos and devastation. Microsoft Corp.’s 3,500 employees in Japan, for instance, were left without clear direction regarding if or when they should return to work. They weren’t sure about safe travel routes or who to contact about the situation. To resolve these concerns and provide needed information, HR and the company’s incident management team established communications to locate employees and deliver updates, despite employees being distributed throughout a large geographic area. Appropriate updates were also shared with key members of senior management through the same channels. Each worker received the most relevant information for his or her situation.

While the scale of the earthquake and resulting emergency was inordinately large, natural disasters threaten thousands of businesses each year. In the United States, when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, it affected 23,000 businesses in the New York area alone, not to mention 245,000 employees, according to the New York Daily News. Some of these companies naturally had better disaster response plans than others.

The Challenges of Crisis Communication

One crucial key for effectively protecting personnel in a crisis is communication. But sharing information in a crisis differs from everyday communication in several important aspects, and it must address several significant challenges.

  • One such challenge is a lack of complete situational awareness. This is more likely to happen when alerts are sent from multiple sources, such as management of different business groups. The resulting notifications risk being incomplete, causing confusion or being outright incorrect. There is also a risk of some employees not receiving the information.
  • Another issue is the need to manage the safety of discrete groups of employees. A company may have multiple offices, or there may simply be a number of remote workers who need to be alerted of an emergency situation. These groups may require different messages.
  • Time is also critical in an emergency. From the speed a fire can spread to the rapid escalation of an active shooter incident (which, according to the FBI, typically lasts just 12 minutes), rapid alerting is critical to employee safety.
  • Effective use of limited manpower also relies on communication. When responders have to search a large area for injured people or a perpetrator of violence, every minute without important information puts lives at risk.
  • Lack of effective follow-up can cause trouble after a crisis as well. Even if all members of the staff are accounted for safely during the emergency, it’s important that the business be able to resume operations as soon as possible. This requires additional notifications informing employees that the crisis has passed.

—Karen Garavatti

These examples illustrate one of the challenges facing HR today: remote workers. Whether it is employees traveling to the office or those working remotely, it’s more of a challenge than ever to be sure that all personnel receive the right information quickly, particularly in an emergency. It’s also becoming more difficult to track the location of employees to ensure their safety and meet accountability requirements in certain industries such as the public sector. Federal agencies have instituted guidelines such as the U.S. Commerce Department’s Human Resources Bulletin No. 124, which provides formal guidelines for locating employees in the event of an emergency.

Workplace Emergencies and the Role of HR

Recent events have shown that there are many different kinds of crises an organization could face. In addition to large-scale natural disasters such as storms and hurricanes, each year nearly 2 million Americans experience some form of workplace violence, according to the U.S. Labor Department. And USA Today cites more than 200 mass killings since 2006 in the U.S. Other emergencies include workplace fires, which injure more than 5,000 people and cause $2 billion in damage per year in the United States alone, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Still other crises include industrial accidents or explosions.

Whatever the emergency, HR is frequently thrust to the forefront, responsible for communicating with employees in order to keep them safe and minimize the business impact of incidents. This is a tall order, but there’s good reason for HR to take on this responsibility. HR is the group most likely to have current contact information for employees. That information includes personal and work email addresses and phone numbers, but it also includes current roles and assignments — an important consideration in organizations that experience frequent reassignment of responsibilities where an individual might fall between the cracks and be left ignorant of a situation. When HR handles emergency communication, it also provides a central authority for providing correct information, which prevents confusion and incomplete efforts by individual managers.

Shortfalls in Current Communication Systems

For most organizations, the current method of communicating with employees in an emergency falls short. Most alerts exist as single channels without any coordination, so separate efforts would be required to send out text messages, emails, phone calls and so on. This greatly increases the time required to notify employees of a crisis, when a delay of seconds increases the risk of injury or death. UCLA, for instance, used to have separate channels for sending emails, texts and other notifications. But when there’s an emergency, like a water main break that the school recently experienced, there isn’t a lot of time to get the word out. Additionally, employees are not always diligent about alerting their managers of changes in contact information. When individual managers or business groups are responsible for their own alerts, rather than relying on HR, they may not have the most up-to-date information.

Current communication systems frequently fail in one other important aspect: HR might send a notification to employees to evacuate the office, for example. If there is no way to track who has received the message, however, it can put more lives at risk as staff members attempt to verify that the building has been completely emptied.

Networked Crisis Communications

Technological developments from wireless Internet access to virtualization have changed nearly every aspect of business operations over the past two decades. Recently, the number of IP-enabled devices has skyrocketed: Research group Gartner Inc.estimates there are 4.9 billion Internet-connected devices currently in use. As this Internet of Things gives the average employee far more ways than ever to connect to the Web, it also provides HR with a new opportunity to extend its reach in a crisis. Networked crisis communication expands the number of devices through which an organization can distribute alerts in an emergency.

To maximize the effectiveness of emergency mass notifications, a business should ensure that it has the following capabilities.

  • First, the system must be authoritative and controlled from a central operator group, ideally HR. A single authority as the source of all notifications ensures consistent, thorough information that employees can trust. With multiple contact options available for each employees, HR can distribute alerts in near real time.
  • The crisis communication system must also serve as a single source for multiple communication channels. UCLA, for instance, uses its networked alerting system to send out alerts by text, voice message, desktop pop-up, email, radio and more. HR should be able to send notifications through as many of these channels as they require, as a single alerting instance.
  • Organizations should ensure that the system is suited to the size and distribution of the entire organization. They should also be able to send alerts across buildings or even to other cities with different distribution groups that can be used depending on the nature of the emergency. Future expansion should also be taken into account to eliminate future challenges.
  • With every business carefully evaluating the use of resources, it makes financial sense to leverage existing investments. Rather than deploying all new hardware and software, a crisis communication system should be capable of integrating current channels from mobile devices to static hardware such as PA systems or closed-circuit TV. In addition to reducing capital expenses, this also reduces the training operators.
  • To further improve employee safety and meet accountability requirements, organizations should establish a system that allows two-way communication. Allowing employees to acknowledge the receipt of messages and respond with additional information via text, photo or even geolocation also delivers management better information to use in decision-making.

Additional Steps for Successful Crisis Communications

With the correct tools in place, the organization is in a position to better protect its people in an emergency, but sufficient follow-through is required to make any system a success. HR should work with every department across the organization to be sure it has all the correct and complete contact information for employees. The system operators will also require training to ensure that they can operate the system correctly in a variety of crises. Test alerts should be sent out to give HR experience distributing alerts, and to help employees become accustomed to notifications and improve their reaction in a real emergency, including responding to alerts on devices with the capability. As with any emergency response plan, regular practice will improve results. Drills conducted at least every three months are ideal and will bring to light system issues such as employees who are not receiving alerts.

As businesses adapt to ongoing technological and cultural changes, HR will continue to be at the center of the workplace evolution, bearing more responsibility for helping to protect employees’ lives in an emergency. Disasters are always unexpected but must be planned for in advance to ensure the safety of personnel. To support business continuity and protect employees from natural disasters, workplace violence or other accidents, organizations should research and implement a networked crisis communication system that gives them the power to quickly reach all their people in a crisis. This technology, combined with an organizational mindset supporting emergency preparedness, will ensure that the company’s priceless human resources are protected and life — and business — will go on the same way Microsoft was able to carry on in Japan even after a tsunami.

Karen Garavatti is senior director of human resources at AtHoc, a division of BlackBerry. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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