This past Valentine’s Day, Coral Springs, Florida’s human resources director Dale Pazdra kicked off an internal monthlong kindness challenge campaign in the new city hall. Employees gathered that morning to enjoy breakfast treats and share in friendly conversation.
Pazdra had no idea how critical those values would become in a matter of hours.
While celebrating the holiday later with family, Pazdra rushed out the door after his daughters received tweets about a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the adjoining city of Parkland.
By day’s end, 17 students and teachers had died, 17 others were injured and the 19-year-old suspect was apprehended. Some victims lived in Coral Springs, which is part of the Broward County Public Schools.
“The first thing you do is think about how you are going to help employees get through this,” said Pazdra of the city’s 1,000 full- and part-time employees serving 126,000 residents. His HR team of 12 staff members immediately set up citywide support services.
The day after the shootings, many employees reported to work openly weeping, Pazdra recalled.
“Although none of our employees or their children lost their lives, many have children who were almost killed, lost friends or had to walk over wounded and dead children to get out of that building,” said Pazdra. “My daughter is homeschooled but she dances with a number of kids and one of her friends from dance was killed,” he added. “It was very hard.”
Through 54 years of incorporation, Coral Springs employees have encountered disasters including Category 5 hurricanes that required all hands on deck. The Parkland shooting, however, was different in its scope of tragedy and HR complexities. Multiple agencies were involved, necessitating distinct HR responses.
Parkland contracts its fire and rescue services through Coral Springs and law enforcement through the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. Stoneman Douglas — whose students come from Parkland and Coral Springs — is in Parkland city boundaries but is part of Broward County Public Schools, the nation’s sixth-largest school system.
“We had to draw some boundaries,” said Pazdra of where he and his team invested time and resources. “We weren’t running that incident. It was really the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s incident. We weren’t the school board, so we couldn’t answer people’s questions about the children and teachers who were affected. We kept our focus on our employee population, which is what you have to do.
“You can’t fix everything for everyone, but because we’re an organization that supports and provides services to the community, we had people coming to us wanting to help in some shape or form and we did a lot of referrals to the family support center set up in Parkland for resources and counseling.”
Karen Cierzan, vice president of behavioral clinical operations for health insurer Cigna, which provides an employee assistance program for Coral Springs employees, said it’s important for HR professionals to be well-versed in their EAP services available before a crisis occurs.
An EAP strategy for a mass event takes a broad approach encompassing an immediate provision of information and resources to a wide array of employees including details about “counseling services, coping strategies, and how to recognize reactions in yourself, your co-workers and families,” she said, and moves to one-on-one encounters to accommodate individual reactions to the same event.
Cigna’s employee assistance counselors meet with an employer, discuss the incident, create a plan based on the organization’s culture and provide follow-up, Cierzan said.
“From an HR professional’s standpoint, what really touched me was the outpouring of support,” said Pazdra. “Every vendor, insurance carrier and benefits consultant within 48 hours offered us whatever they could.”
Companies such as Humana and Aetna joined Cigna in opening services to people not insured through them, Pazdra said. Therapy dogs were brought in by groups and individuals. Community professionals donated services.
Pazdra sought to balance communications by keeping devastated employees informed while also not overwhelming them with information to the point that it became emotionally difficult for them to move forward.
Critical support information for employees and families was conveyed across multiple platforms, including a website, a hotline and email blasts.
“We communicated at high levels to ensure we were acting in the right time frame, not duplicating efforts and staying focused on matters on which we could have an impact,” Pazdra said.
While planned events such as a ribbon-cutting for the new city call were canceled, an employee chili cook-off was rescheduled and attracted a record turnout, which Pazdra attributed to the need for employees to connect with one another.
The pain of the first responders was palpable during press conferences. They “had seen things no human being should have to see,” said Coral Springs Police Chief Clyde Parry of the area’s first mass-casualty incident. Coral Springs’ HR team augmented the public safety department’s internal peer-counseling groups with additional help for employees and families.
In addition to the city’s human resources team, Pazdra also directs its community relations and volunteer services departments, whose employees assisted in community events and coordinated with Parkland to manage logistics for protests and vigils.
An “extremely powerful and emotional” day of healing at a city park closed to the public and media brought together victims, survivors, families and teachers with the first responders.
City management joined elected officials who attended multiple funerals to show their support.
Pazdra’s team remains vigilant for post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions and is expanding peer counseling programs, focusing on diffusing the stigma associated with “getting your mental well-being in order,” he noted. Such efforts will be in place for as long as is necessary, he added.
“HR has a special role to play in helping employees adjust in healthy ways after stressful or traumatic incidents and communication is key,” Cierzan said. “Engaging directly with employees by walking around and speaking with them helps HR professionals better understand employee concerns and how to help.”
People react differently to the same incident. Some may be at risk for more intense reactions, such as those whose lives were directly affected by the shooting or similar traumatic events, or those who are vulnerable to stress due to a mental, emotional or substance-abuse disorder, Cierzan said.
An important course of action is to signal a willingness to talk, be patient and supportive through active listening; problem-solve with the employee to cover their work; and ensure they know how to get help through the organization’s EAP services, she said.
Pazdra said for someone whose demeanor is changing or showing signs of extreme depression, “Sometimes it’s overwhelming to that person if you go to them directly, but if you can reach out to others in their network and still show the caring and support that way, it’s more strategic.
In the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, “many people were concerned about how to speak to their children about violence,” Cierzan said.
Pazdra’s team was flexible in giving employees time off to tend to their children and other matters related to the tragedy.
Crises that originate externally but require an organization’s internal response often thrust employees into the media spotlight. Pazdra praised the city’s communications team for their handling of an event that attracted international attention.
John Fortunato, a Fordham University communications and media management professor and crisis management expert, advises organizations to train employees who might appear at press conferences to anticipate the types of questions and provide responses that don’t reveal too much information or speculation.
Stan Steinreich, president and CEO of Steinreich Communications, recommends issuing an immediate holding statement to respond to media inquiries, provide useful updates, communicate internally as well as externally and fix any erroneous messages. He added that in post-crisis situations, law enforcement typically takes the communications lead.
Media-relations staff should monitor multiple platforms including social media for message consistency.
Fortunato suggested developing crisis prevention exercises based on top-down identifiable risks, testing the approaches through a mock crisis and taking corrective action limiting the possibility of a recurring crisis.
Pazdra noted the city has a long-standing 95 to 97 percent employee satisfaction level.
“The employees know we care and we certainly didn’t disappoint with this response,” he said, adding that he found the community’s desire to help impressive.
“I wanted to have a month of kindness and caring for employees and make them feel special. Sometimes they’re overlooked or neglected,” Pazdra added. “I never expected it to happen in response to something so horrible.”
Carol Brzozowski is a Florida-based independent journalist whose work has appeared in more than 170 media outlets. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org