HR Administration

Part 3: Leading People Through Disasters

By Kathryn D. McKee, Liz Guthridge

Jun. 2, 2006

In their book Leading People Through Disasters: An Action Guide Preparing for and Dealing With the Human Side of Crises, authors Kathryn D. McKee, SPHR, and Liz Guthridge lay out a step-by-step blueprint to help HR professionals deal with the effect of disasters on their workforces.

Workforce Management is pleased to provide you with four excerpts from McKee and Guthridge’s book, which is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Book Excerpt
Part 3–Leading People Through Disasters
An Action Guide: Preparing for and Dealing With the Human Side of Crises

Balancing the needs of employees with getting back to work

Getting back to work after a disaster
When the rains, winds, fire or floods have ceased, it’s time to pay attention in equal part to people’s physical and emotional states in anticipation of going back to work.

You’ve got to consider where your employees will report to work, whether they have the tools, information and other resources they need to do their job, and what tasks they need to focus on. As daunting as that may seem considering what has happened, the challenges of getting employees established into a new work setting may be straightforward compared with dealing with employees’ emotional states.

As a manager, you may have to deal with employees’ feelings of loss, uncertainty, confusion, fear, sadness, anxiety and anger. You may need to deal with issues of safety, health, and job security. When you and your employees have to work under difficult conditions, everyone’s frustrations can work against the organization’s goals and objectives.

Getting business systems up and running again
In the hours and days after the disaster first strikes, organization leaders frequently become consumed with the logistics of the business interruption. In fact, most business continuity plans concentrate on backup computer systems, backup mechanical systems, off-site locations for resuming work and perhaps an emergency operations center large enough for the most critical executives for command-and-control efforts.

Getting people back to productivity
But what about backup human systems? What thought have you given to employees whose homes have been destroyed? Or, those who can’t get to the work site or, conversely, can’t get home from work? What about those with missing family members? Those who are separated from their pets?

These are subjects you need to address as you build your business continuity plan, including developing contingent human resource policies. As a rule of thumb, acts of nature that cut a wide or deep swath can have more devastating effects on more humans for longer times than a company-specific problem, such as a plant explosion or a building fire. That’s why it’s so important to think broadly when preparing for disasters. If you’re to resume your business operations, you need employees back at work.

For example, northeast Ohio is several hundred miles from tornado alley, but that didn’t stop a twister from bisecting a Delphi plant there one Friday evening in 1985. Michael Hissam, now regional director of corporate affairs for Delphi Mexico Operations, worked at the facility as Delphi’s lead media contact. The plant, which ran multiple shifts, had a disaster preparedness plan that immediately went into action. Even though it hadn’t taken tornadoes into account, the plan was thorough enough for the plant to resume operations first thing Monday morning.

Not all employees were back to work. One employee lost her life at the plant, and more than 200 had been injured either at the plant or in the neighboring area. Others lost their homes. Hissam remembers that it took months for some people to recover, not only from their physical injuries but also from their property damage and the trauma. Other employees pitched in to cover for their co-workers on the job, and many contributed money to help with the financial strain. Members of the HR staff spent time helping affected employees and their families.

More recently, 30 inches of rain fell in Santa Barbara, California, over a two-week period in January 2005. Normal rainfall is less than half that amount. The typically dry and rocky riverbeds were white-water rushing to the sea and in some cases overflowing their banks. An area south of Santa Barbara suffered a horrendous landslide, 10 people were killed, and the only north-south highway was closed in both directions for more than a week. As if that weren’t awful enough, at the north end of the Santa Barbara coastline, the same highway was closed for a day because of an overturned truck as well as mudslides and overflowing creeks.

Thus, the area was landlocked, and employers were bewildered about how to keep their operations going with some employees stuck at work and others stuck at home. Employers scrambled to find hotel rooms for those at work. Some employees who were at home could work from their residences. But there were a lot of people who were not working, or working shortened schedules and having a difficult time concentrating when they were working. Employees were concerned about adequate food, shelter and clothing, as well as their paychecks.

Employers were wondering, “Do we pay or not pay?” Some employers could and did so. Other employers decided they could not afford to pay for time not worked, but did allow their nonexempt employees to use vacation pay. This underscores the critical nature of developing contingent pay policies based on what you are financially capable of providing. Some employers after Hurricane Katrina and other hurricane-related disasters were able to reassure their employees with full pay for a period of time.

Pay or no pay, some employees may decide to move on, which can really throw a wrench into a company’s business recovery. “Employees and management are not drinking the same Kool-Aid,” observes Charles Pizzo, crisis communication expert and hurricane Katrina evacuee. Employees have a lot more on their minds than returning to work. “Employees’ first responsibility is to themselves and their families. They’re concerned about their self-preservation; they’re thinking about their safety, not their work,” especially if they’re in a minimum-wage job.

If employers have failed to create sound plans for dealing with disasters and getting the business back on track with their employees’ needs in mind, Pizzo says these employers run a big risk of losing employees. “By not taking actions, either to plan or to take actions afterward to help, employers (particularly those in the service industry with lots of low-level customer-facing jobs) are leaving their businesses totally vulnerable.”

Impact of employee trauma on the business
Getting employees back to work after a crisis is just the first step. Trauma experts and others who are familiar with the human systems side of business continuity planning know that crises can contribute to tension in the workplace, which manifests itself in multiple ways. Besides the high attrition, businesses can suffer costly workers’ compensation claims, spiraling medical costs, excessive absenteeism and loss of productivity. And these issues may continue long after the emergency has passed.

Helping employees through the trauma of disaster
Managers and supervisors who are most familiar with the work habits and personalities of their employees can play a critical role in preventing problems, detecting difficulties and motivating people to accept outside help. HR also can help by recommending outside resources, many of which may be company-paid.

Everyone needs to look out for everyone else. Problems detected and solved early in the post-catastrophe situation reap benefits for employees and the company alike. Employees will experience fewer traumas, or at least recover faster and stronger. Co-workers who aren’t feeling the adverse affects of the disaster won’t feel as burdened by, or resentful of, the extra work they’ve taken on to help out. As a result, morale can improve faster, and employee relations will be better.

The employer can minimize its exposure to costly workers’ compensation claims and medical and disability claims. You also may improve attendance and tardiness faster than you would otherwise, which will increase your chances for maintaining satisfactory productivity levels.

Please also see: Part 1, Part 2Part 4

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