When Disaster Strikes: HR’s Critical Role in Helping Employees Manage

The unthinkable happens.

A bomb explodes in a crowded business district. Your business is near ground zero. Some of your employees are injured in the blast, a few fatally, including your Human Resources leader.

Employees are coming to you with HR questions and issues and you aren’t sure what to do next. This week’s events at the Boston Marathon bring this scary scenario into focus and reinforce the need for advance planning for emergencies.

A few items to keep in mind

First of all, remember that everyone handles disaster differently. Some employees “freeze” and need help managing their fear and grief, others want answers as to how this impacts them, and some employees process the event(s) by insisting on working as if nothing happened.

One thing is for certain: your employees want and need leadership and extra communications about how the business will manage through the issues facing employees, customers and the business as a whole.

The most commonly asked questions include the following:

  • Will the business remain open? If the structure was not damaged in the blast, employees need to know if it will be “business as usual”, reduced operating hours, or closure. If the structure was damaged, employees will want to know when they can return to work.
  • If I cannot work, will I be paid for the time off? You will need to think through how your business will manage the “pay issue”. If employees take time off, will you expect them to take accrued vacation, PTO or sick time? Or will the time off just be paid (or unpaid)?
  • What benefits are available? For employees who haven’t used the benefits program, they may need someone to explain the benefits available to them. To the extent you can, work with your insurance broker and/or carriers to provide summary information for each employee. To the extent that you can personalize benefits balances and provide specific information, the better. For employees whose property was damaged in the blast, they may want to take a hardship withdrawal from the company retirement plan (if available).
  • What about counseling resources? Work to establish immediately resources to assist employees in managing grief (EAP or psychological counseling), Red Cross assistance, financial and insurance counseling, and local family resources.
  • Will we be sending flowers or condolences to those seriously injured and or killed in the blast? If so, who will handle this? Consider how you will manage the company’s response to messages of condolence. Some organizations designate a specific staff member to handle this task. It is always a good idea to ask a family member about the family’s preferences.
  • Can we help employees or family members impacted by this event on our own? Fellow employees often want to extend their sympathies by taking a collection for flowers, a charitable contribution of their own, or even to “gift” paid time off to those recovering. Think about how you might handle that.
  • Were our employee records and files damaged or destroyed in the blast? If so, hopefully you have disaster recovery files to recreate what might have been lost.

Communication is critical

Ensure that employee communications are immediate and as comprehensive as possible regarding business operations, benefits, pay issues, counseling resources, etc. Outline how payroll and other terms and conditions will be handled while the company is on reduced operations.

Work with business group department heads to determine staffing needs (if the business is still running) and identify key staff and communicate work schedules. Make sure that you outline expectations regarding:

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  • Reporting for work;
  • How pay and benefits will be handled;
  • Amount of leave time available (and whether it is paid or unpaid).

Brief your management team (either with in-house resources or with external trainers) regarding managing distraught employees. Often EAP providers and/or local grief counseling services can provide this service. Ensure that employees know who to go to for assistance (in the event that HR or the immediate supervisors or managers are not available).

If any of your employees die in the disaster, ensure that you follow the state requirements for delivering final paychecks and other benefits to the employee’s beneficiaries.

This is the time to show compassion. To the extent possible, allow employees flexibility in schedules, benefits and pay to manage their reactions to the event and allow them to be available to family members and friends.

When you can, allow deadlines for projects and work priorities to be altered to reflect employee reactions to the incident. If appropriate, pool resources with nearby businesses (i.e. electricity, water, human resources) to be able to continue to operate.

Above all else, let employees know that they are valued and important and that you sincerely want to help. Finally, take care of yourself and allow yourself time and resources to process your reactions to the event.

Laura Kerekes is the Chief Knowledge Officer for ThinkHR. She applies her extensive human resources and general management experience to a broad range of services for her clients, including: strategic HR consulting, interim human resources executive assignments and compliance/OD/training. Contact her at lkerekes@thinkhr.com.

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