HR Must Play Strategic Role In Crisis Management, Speaker Says

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine  


CHICAGO--When Hurricane Katrina struck the states near the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005, human resources at Target Brands Inc. was right in the middle of handling the crisis for the well-known retailer.

The company managed to get the cash registers up and running in a very short time, but it was left with the question of who would run them, Terri Howard, who worked for Target then and is now senior director of FEI Behavioral Health in Milwaukee, recalled.

In a crisis, “HR's role is strategic. It is to make sure that your folks are taken care of,” Howard said June 19 at the Society for Human Resource Management's Annual Conference & Exposition.

That has numerous ramifications, she said. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, banks were closed and ATMs weren't working due to power failures, so “we had to fly in cash to pay people, which had implications for compensation,” Howard said. There also were questions about employees with health insurance going to health care providers who were out of network temporarily, she said, and whether the employees would be charged copays.

Of 18,000 employees who worked in Target stores in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas affected by Hurricane Katrina, 3,000 never returned, although half of these went on to work at Target stores elsewhere in the country, Howard said.

What Is Your Plan?

There is a lot to be done before a crisis ever hits, Howard said. The first step is to assemble the appropriate team, she said, and ask some basic questions: If there is a mass casualty event, who will notify injured or dead employees' next of kin? Is HR trained to do that? If the company finds itself in the same position as Target after Katrina and has to pay people in cash, has it set up the legal basis to do that? Can the crisis management team get hazardous duty pay? All these questions should be settled before a crisis ever hits, Howard said.

Next, she advised employers to conduct an all-hazards risk assessment. “You need to look at where you're most vulnerable,” Howard said, such as earthquake risk in California. Some questions to ask, Howard said, are: Where are the building's exit and entrance points? Does the company have an effective evacuation plan in place, with floor captains appointed? Are there access control points where people need a badge to enter, so that it is known who is in the building at any point? Some risks HR will have to accept and be prepared to deal with because there aren't resources available to mitigate them, she noted.

Next, HR should develop the necessary crisis management plans, Howard said. Many organizations use checklists, she added. HR needs to develop communications and information distribution; a great crisis management plan that sits in a binder in someone's office that nobody knows about or that nobody has been trained in doesn't help anything, Howard said.

Other aspects of communication include how employees can let the employer know in a crisis that they won't be able to make it in to work. The employer can give them a hotline to call, and a way to let them know what is going on with the company, Howard said. HR also has to arrange the appropriate drills, she said.

Moreover, HR also should develop a resource directory, Howard said. The company needs to decide what resources it will provide to employees and their families after a disaster, and HR should compile a list of internal and external resources, including support available from the community, such as emergency responders and food pantries in the case of a widespread natural disaster.

What Comes Next?

When a crisis hits, HR will be busy with “people-support tasks,” such as accounting for employees and determining who is available to come to work and who isn't. “During an event, the key piece is communication, letting people know what's going on,” Howard said.

The company may want to consider having a family assistance center for a mass casualty event, an idea with origins in the aviation industry, she said. Afterwards, it should make psychological “first aid” available for people who have been traumatized--not ongoing counseling, Howard stressed, although the company's employee assistance plan can help with this. Some organizations may hold memorial services if there have been fatalities, she said, and even pay for family members' travel to attend.

After an event, Howard said, HR should conduct debriefings, fitness for duty determinations, and exit interviews for those who never return to work for the company. “This is to uncover lessons learned for why they're not coming back and anything else the company can do for the person, and to improve plans for next time,” she said.


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