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.
Part 1–Leading People Through Disasters
An Action Guide: Preparing for and Dealing With the Human Side of Crises
Guiding Managers and HR Staff
After the First Interstate Tower in Los Angeles burned on May 4, 1988, we had to relocate all employees quickly to new work sites. As we HR leaders dealt with employees’ confusion, frustration, fear and anger, we realized with one of those “slap-the-forehead” gestures that we needed to take some direct and positive actions. We had to smooth the way for employees at all levels to learn how to deal with the situation directly, especially the trauma they were experiencing, so they could get back to work.
Dealing with employee issues after a disaster
As we debriefed the events, we also recognized we didn’t want to get too caught up in what some people now refer to as hindsight bias—how we thought we should have acted once we knew what actually happened with the fire, the recovery and the restoration. After all, the fire required us to act quickly in a dynamic situation. Disasters by their very nature require you to go into the unknown and take action. We had our priorities straight: ensuring everyone was safe. And we fought rather than fled, which was the right thing to do.
To deal more effectively with the trauma caused by the fire, we acknowledged we needed professional help to better equip our managers, our employees and ourselves. We brought in Dr. Morey Framer, who specialized in trauma response and recovery. He had been instrumental in counseling a large contingent of search and rescue workers who labored on several grisly airplane and ferry crashes.
Dr. Framer’s emphasis was twofold: First, take care of your employees, and second, take care of your organization. By taking care of your organization, leaders would ameliorate potential workers’ compensation claims and other costs. With all the other disasters we later faced, First Interstate also discovered other business benefits to taking care of employees first and the business second. These include employees returning to work so the business can operate, preserving or even increasing the company’s reputation, and generating good will among employees and customers that also can help the company’s bottom line over time. Other companies have experienced these benefits as well.
Developing special employee relations training programs
Dr. Framer designed and developed targeted training programs for employees in several departments: HR relationship managers, line managers, the medical group, workers’ compensation and the employee assistance program, which was an internal group. We also restated responsibilities for these groups so we would all be clear on who would be doing what for the near term. Those statements are at the end of this chapter.
Here is a synopsis of the training, with some suggestions on additional issues that you may want to consider today:
The human resources staff received training in several techniques. While HR professionals know how to mediate employee relations issues, they may not always know how to confront the behavioral underpinnings caused by stress, abject fear, anger, ennui, depression or any of the stages of the grieving process, which disasters can trigger.
We learned how to intervene early so we could help supervisors and employees come to grips with their individual personal or interpersonal issues that may have either stemmed from the fire or been exacerbated by it.
We also worked on our skills for evaluating why an employee’s performance may have started to deteriorate after the incident, which in this case was a fire. We took into consideration the pressures caused by the fire, the dislocation of work spaces and other concerns that the employee may have been experiencing, which could now be contributing to declining performance. For example, had the employee ever been in a fire before? We got additional training on how and when to refer employees to the EAP.
Managers and supervisors received special training on how to reduce stress and tension at their work site. Managers and supervisors were encouraged to have lots of face time with their employees, by holding frequent all-hands meetings as well as one-on-one sessions. Managers and supervisors learned how they should ask their employees about their situations, including how they were coping and feeling about working conditions, workloads and the like.
We also suggested that managers and supervisors give their staff members “mental health days” that would not count against their vacation or sick days. We also persuaded them to hold departmental potlucks, picnics, ice cream breaks, pizza parties and other gatherings to break tension and have a bit of fun. For example, one department often took lunch breaks out of the office, riding a downtown shuttle together for a change of scenery and different types of food.
Back then, managers and their employees often worked side by side. These days, managers are often responsible for employees based in multiple locations spread all over the world. That poses its own set of challenges when a disaster strikes. Nonetheless, one of the lessons we learned that still applies today is that people want to and need to spend time together. So if you’re a manager who’s not physically with your people, you should try to travel to be with them as much as possible. And for times when you can’t make it, ask people in the locale to gather people together. Just make sure they don’t spend all their time together wallowing in what happened to them. It’s fine to spend a little time in “pity city,” but then jump-start the conversation to talk about other issues, including planning for the future.
The manager training also addressed employee performance issues. Managers learned to take additional time to examine why an employee’s performance was declining. We didn’t want them to jump immediately into the disciplinary process. We also had them learn more about the employee assistance program and the importance of referring troubled employees to a counselor as soon as they detected a behavioral or stress-induced problem.
Parts 3 and 4 include some instructions for dealing with specific behavioral issues caused by trauma. These instructions will work in any traumatic situation. At the bank, we put a great emphasis on reporting, not because we were the ultimate “personnel police” but because we wanted the paper trail for business protection purposes.
The employee assistance staff received supplementary training to identify signs and symptoms of delayed or post-traumatic stress syndrome. They learned applicable therapeutic techniques and how to identify the most appropriate outside support and expertise for extreme cases.
For example, about two weeks after the fire, the HR staff learned that two employees had been working on the 16th floor late at night when the fire broke out below them on the 12th floor. They smelled and saw white smoke and assumed it was related to the welding project to retrofit the sprinkler system. (To our horror, we also learned belatedly that the sprinkler system had been shut off nightly while this retrofitting was occurring.)
As the smoke thickened and turned black, the two employees realized something dreadful was happening. So they hopped in an elevator, which amazingly took them through the fire to the lobby floor. They then ran outside through thick, dark and choking smoke to the street. It was only then that they saw flames shooting out of the building, felt hot glass shards hitting them, and discovered they were experiencing a fire.
Their trauma started soon after. When we learned of their plight two weeks later, we arranged for comprehensive psychological counseling with much follow-up. They slowly recovered from their nightmares, and were able to return to a productive level of work.
But, their fear and trauma all came rushing back when they returned to the 37th floor of the building in the exact place where two other California Bank employees had been trapped and then safely rescued. Scratches were all over the windows where they had tried unsuccessfully to break the glass.
With one phone call, the trauma counselor came back on site immediately to help them, along with all the employees on that floor. The counselor helped them learn how to deal with the daily reminders of now two frightening experiences.
The workers’ compensation department staff was taught to identify any claims filed related to the fire and to perform case interviews as soon as possible. As a result of the training we conducted for all our special groups, which took place after the fire, we experienced only two claims. They were filed by the two people who were caught in the burning building and suffered smoke inhalation. We had no other claims for stress or any other fire-related causes.
With just two workers’ compensation claims to contend with, and no litigation, our investment in this training more than paid for itself.
HR partnering with the EAP
While the HR function had worked well with the EAP staff before the fire, we realized the pivotal role they would play in the care of our people, and so the relationship became much closer. We continued to be committed to the confidential nature of the EAP and made sure no confidences were ever violated. Yet, the HR staff gained a stronger understanding of the power of healing through the types of interventions the EAP staff could make.
First Interstate was large enough and lucky enough to have a corporate industrial nurse on staff. The nurse, along with the EAP, helped us with additional programs based on Dr. Framer’s principles that we need to take care of our people.
Today, most organizations outsource medical and EAP services and encourage employees to take more responsibility for managing their careers and their personal lives. Nonetheless, employers can still make available off-the-shelf programs, such as stress management, relaxation techniques, nutrition and exercise. Especially after a disaster, employees understood the value of these programs and attended them in high numbers.