Late on the evening of May 4, 1988, the First Interstate Bancorp building in California caught fire. Luckily, the fire was put out quickly and only two of the employees working at the time were hurt, and their injuries were minor. Looking back, things could have been much worse. Our offices were damaged though, and not safe for us to be in.
So, what do you do when you have a thousand or so employees and no place for them to work?
We managed to find a temporary workspace in the downtown Los Angeles corridor, but had we been better prepared, we wouldn’t have had such a last-minute scramble. Questions quickly arose among our staff about pay, transportation, hours to be worked, when we would be able to return to our building, and so on. And we realized, ashamedly, we did not have the answers.
Our human resources directors quickly became aware we had no relative HR policies to fall back on. There was nothing in the disaster preparedness plan to guide us. We were like the proverbial dog chasing its tail.
So, we sat down and spent quite a bit of time discussing what to do, how to do it, what it might cost and so on. Our CEOs gave us permission to move ahead on developing policies and programs, and provided funding so that we could implement them to cover the immediate situation and then look to the future so that the organization would be better prepared for the unexpected.
We learned how important it is to consider our HR philosophy for caring about employees. It’s not enough to have a basic emergency plan for your building, you have to think about all the potential aspects of an unexpected scenario and how you’re going to support your staff through a disaster-type situation.
If you haven’t examined your HR policies for disaster preparedness, let me be the first to tell you, you should. From my own experience, I can’t stress enough how vital it is to have policies in place so you are prepared for the unexpected – even if it never happens.
So what can you do now to ensure your HR policies are set up to guide your company through a disaster situation?
First, think about the most pressing issues. Here are seven of the most important ones we faced.
- Pay for time not worked. You may already have a policy in place, but is it enough for an emergency situation? It depends on the severity of what you might face. What if your building is destroyed or severely damaged? You might want to consider more days than your current policy allows.
- Use of vacation pay. Can you let employees use their vacation time? There may be employees who wish to just go on vacation due to the chaotic situation or use their vacation time so that they have funds to help them through until regular hours are restored.
- Working at home. Is this a possibility?
- Rescheduling hours. Can you change shift times? Do you have union contracts that might make this difficult? Talk to your union representatives so this can be a win-win arrangement.
- Delivery of paychecks. If employees are not able to work and you don’t have direct deposit, how quickly can you get their checks to them?
- Traumatized employees. There is usually an emotional reaction during and after a disaster. Employees may experience fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, confusion – or all the above. As part of your planning, be sure that you have connected with trained counselors to help employees with their emotions and mental health.
- Bereavement leave. While bereavement leave is usually reserved for the death of family members, you may be faced with mass casualties and many deaths of friends, neighbors and possibly family members. What happens in these situations is that your community may be hit with many deaths and employees may ask for more than one day off to mourn their loss(es).
In the aftermath of a disaster, when everyone is back at work, be prepared for morale changes and increased tensions. It will be important to offer ways to boost people’s moods and keep your team connected.
- Staff donations: Some employees may want to make contributions of money, clothing or the like to their coworkers in need.
- A special day off: Allow your managers to give employees a “mental health day” – this is a wonderful gesture of kindness for those who are having difficulty focusing at work.
- A memorial: Employees might want to set up a memorial if staff members have been lost. How might you deal with this?
- Ad hoc social activities: First Interstate made great use of pizza parties, ice cream socials, a barbecue on the roof of our parking stack with the CEOs as the chefs
- An employee communication program: We set up a newsletter to communicate progress on getting our building repaired. This is a great way to keep staff informed – a crucial element in dealing with any crisis and its aftermath.
Your Plan of Action
Once you have brainstormed all the issues you may face and the steps you’d like to take to support your staff, you can take steps to adjust your existing HR policies or create new ones to reflect the changes you’d like to make. Here are four steps to get you started.
- Start by examining your employee handbook for policies that might need adjusting for emergency situations.
- Think about being ready for emergency situations and how you can plan ahead for how you will communicate during such a disruptive time.
- What kind of training might your managers need for dealing with traumatized employees?
- Make sure you have access to people trained in counseling.