Leading People Through Disasters: An Action Guide: Preparing for and Dealing with the Human Side of Crises

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The only book that tackles how to manage the human factors and provide leadership before, during, and after catastrophic events provoked by nature, accidents, or acts of violence. The potential damage that can occur due to inadequate preparation makes this an issue too important to ignore.

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Part I: Planning for Disasters

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Chapter 1: Preparing to Lead in the Face of Fear

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This chapter covers four topics:

When planning for a disaster:

When dealing with a disaster:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how prepared are you to deal with a disaster befalling your organization? Are you ready to lead your employees through it? Are you geared up to deal with a hurricane, fire, flood, tornado, murder, chemical spill, act of corporate malfeasance, flu pandemic, terrorist attack, or some other type of disaster?

On second thought, maybe you’d prefer to close this book and take a pleasure trip. How about a cruise down the Mississippi River, where you’ll end up in New Orleans? You’ll find yourself in the state of Louisiana, which in August 2005 was actually “the state of denial,” according to Charles Pizzo and Gerard Braud, two crisis communications experts and Hurricane Katrina victims. 18“And if you’re not thinking about or planning what you might do in a crisis situation now, you’re in a state of denial too. There are just too many risks out there,” Pizzo warns.

One good sign that you’re not in the state of denial is that you have this book open. We hope you’re ready for the challenge. Our goal is to excite you to action so you will take a leadership role within your organization and prepare for the worst, with the hope that nothing bad actually happens. However, the odds are that you will face some kind of minor or major crisis in the course of your work life.

 

Chapter 2: Developing a Business Continuity Plan That Addresses Human Issues

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This chapter covers the following topics:

Planning for unknown events that may affect the workplace is akin to developing system requirements for new software. No matter how many bright minds get together to consider all the contingencies, there will be some potential outcome that you overlooked, never dreamed of, or could not have even imagined.

First of all, you must adopt the mindset of planning for when you’ll face a disaster, not if. This will help you view the planning process as a necessity to your work and business, rather than as an abstract exercise that’s using up valuable time.

Second, you have to put a plan on paper, developing a number of worst-case scenarios along the way. What if the entire building were 34to burn to the ground or be destroyed in an earthquake, tornado, flood, or explosion? What if a disaster happens during rush hour? During peak business hours? After hours? How would each of these situations affect your plans? What if a disgruntled former employee or customer came armed to your offices and opened fire, killing employees and/or others? What if one or more buses, bridges, or buildings were bombed? These dreaded events occur more often than we like to acknowledge.

 

Chapter 3: Creating Contingent HR Policies

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This chapter focuses on three areas:

Some organizations develop an overarching Human Resources philosophy that fits their vision or mission. It goes beyond the “Employees are our most precious asset” cliché; it states how you value your workforce and how you exemplify that value through the types of Human Resources programs and policies you establish.

You need to take this philosophy into account when you start your business continuity planning. Your philosophy should be the underpinning of your plan. We also strongly recommend your plan include contingent policies for dealing with HR issues, and that these policies align with the plan and with your HR philosophy.

When developing contingent policies, the business continuity planning team, or a subteam, should discuss with senior leaders the organization’s values as they relate to the treatment of people during times of crisis. These contingent policies, which also should include how you wish to treat your customers and their demands, will serve to support the business and will be especially helpful in achieving a speedy and efficient business recovery.

 

Part II: Dealing with Disasters

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Chapter 4: Taking Care of Employees

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This chapter covers the following topics:

Taking care of employees immediately after a disaster means making sure they are safe and secure. That’s the overarching issue for the employees and their families. Once that’s taken care of, you need to lead both purposefully and symbolically to get employees out of crisis mode and back to work. Your leadership actions will ease the employees’ anxiety, help to resolve and address the ambiguity of the situation, and provide employees with a sense of purpose, direction, and hope.

The broad actions you must take to deal with the human side of a crisis can be condensed into these seven procedures, generally performed in this order:

The number of times you will repeat the seven-step process depends on the type of disaster, its scope, and the degree of trauma to which your employees are exposed. For example, in terms of the employees’ safety and security, you have to deal with both reality and perception. Sometimes people perceive that they’re in a safe spot but are actually in danger, as in the case of someone driving on roads with downed power lines after a storm to get to family members. At other times people perceive that they’re in a danger zone, such as a person riding an elevator to an upper floor a few months after a building fire or earthquake, but in fact they’re experiencing post-traumatic stress.

 

Appendix

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This is an example of the material that First Interstate provided employees after the building fire described in the Prologue. Mory Framer, the trauma expert, developed it and has given his permission to include it here. This guide should be customized to your organization’s situation, including its ability to provide for outside help.

We hope you will never have to refer to this handout. But if you are ever a victim of a disaster, you can expect to experience aftereffects to varying degrees, and they can last anywhere from six weeks to three months or more.

We also want to alert you that there can be a ripple effect through your family and other loved ones. This handout is designed to help you through the healing process. The acknowledgement of emotional reactions helps shorten recovery time and prevent complications. Reactions can vary widely from one day to the next. Don’t be alarmed by the reemergence of emotions after days or weeks.

Don’t push thoughts and memories of the event away; talk about them. Don’t feel embarrassed about a repetitious need to talk to people.

 

Chapter 5: Guiding Managers and HR Staff

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This chapter covers the following topics:

After the First Interstate fire, 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 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.

As we debriefed the events as a group, we realized we had to avoid getting caught up in what some people refer to as hindsight bias—how we thought we should have acted, once we knew what had actually happened with the fire, the recovery, and the restoration. After all, the fire required us to act quickly in a dynamic situation.81 Disasters by their very nature require you to dive into the unknown and take action. We had our priorities straight: ensuring that everyone was safe. And we fought rather than fled, which was the right thing to do.

 

Chapter 6: Balancing the Needs of Employees with the Need to Return to Work

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This chapter discusses the following topics:

Once the rains, winds, fire, or floodwaters have abated, it’s time to attend in equal parts to employees’ physical and emotional states in anticipation of going back to work. You need to consider where your employees will report to work; whether they have the tools, information, and other resources they need to do their jobs; and what tasks they need to focus on. As daunting as this may seem considering everything that has happened, the challenges of getting employees established in a new work setting may be nothing compared with dealing with their emotional states.

As a leader, you may have to deal with employees’ feelings of loss, uncertainty, confusion, fear, sadness, anxiety, and anger. You may need to deal with issues of safety, health, and job security. 91 When you and your employees are forced to work under difficult conditions, frustrations—both theirs and yours—can work against the organization’s objectives.

In the hours and days after a disaster strikes, organization leaders frequently become consumed with the logistics of business interruption. In fact, most business continuity plans concentrate on backup computer facilities, backup mechanical systems, off-site locations for resuming work, and perhaps an Emergency Operations Center that has sufficient space for the executives most critical to command and control efforts.

 

Chapter 7: Restabilizing Yourself and the Organization

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This chapter describes 10 actions you can take to help you get back on your feet and the organization back to profitability.

When the ground shifts—either literally or figuratively—you may find it difficult to regain your balance, much less move forward in a deliberate, planned manner. Yet getting back to business may be just what employees and the organization need. Business as somewhat usual can be a welcome distraction as well as serving as a rallying cause and source of hope for the future. There are also practical reasons—the company needs to make up for lost time in meeting customer needs and demands, keeping competitors at bay, and fulfilling shareholder expectations.

Following are 10 actions you can take—in any order—to accelerate the recovery process for you, employees, and the organization.

Getting back to work and getting back to normal are two different things. You can do the former but not the latter. It’s important to acknowledge this fact as soon as possible. Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, you cannot go back to the way things were before a disaster. Your life and the lives of others have been permanently altered.

 

Chapter 8: Building Resiliency While Helping Hearts and Minds to Heal

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This chapter covers the following topics:

Just as you can’t predict when an emergency will hit, you can’t calculate when it truly will have ended in the hearts and minds of your employees. Long after all physical evidence of a disaster is gone, people may still be suffering adverse effects from the experience. This is why flexibility in planning and in executing your plan is important; you need to acknowledge that disasters don’t have neat and tidy endings. You may have to continue to provide expert support and counseling to help employees deal with the trauma and grief and continue on the road to recovery long after the event.

The discussion of emotions and conditions such as anger, weariness, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder in this chapter is not meant to imply that everyone involved in a disaster will become one of the walking wounded for the rest of his or her working life. Individuals who have been employed for a 112 significant portion of their lives tend to be highly functional human beings. They also tend to be resilient, which means that they are capable of both recovering from disaster and adjusting to change. Our goal is to shorten this period of recovery and adjustment by taking constructive steps.

 

Chapter 9: Starting to Prepare Now—Five-Minute Planning Steps

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This chapter suggests a number of planning actions that can each be carried out in five minutes. The basic idea is that some disaster planning is better than none, and the planning process need not be an onerous obligation.

For many of us, time is our most precious resource. Why spend it planning for events that might not occur when you already have many pressing demands? The answer is that a variety of unexpected things can happen, as the real-life examples in this book show, and those who took the time to plan generally have benefited from a faster, more complete recovery.

If you remain unconvinced that planning is worth your time, consider the following sets of actions that you can do in five-minute time slots. You may not solve all of the problems that arise, but you’ll bring to the surface important issues that you can then handle one by one over time. By taking action in small bursts, you may be able to stay a few steps ahead when a disaster strikes. Carry out these actions in any order you choose—just take five to survive.

 

An Outline for Business Continuity Planning

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A Sample Telephone Tree

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A Sample Wallet Card

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Employee Emergency Response Procedures

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These procedures are excerpted from the University of California at Santa Barbara Department of Emergency Operations procedures.

Careless management of work and storage areas and of electrical equipment is a common factor in office fires. Stockrooms and vault storage areas, for instance, should be kept uncluttered to prevent fires.

Keep work areas free of excess paper. A concentrated collection of papers and files on desks and filing cabinets makes excellent fuel. Before leaving at night, eliminate that unnecessary fire hazard by placing as many papers and files as possible in closed drawers or file cabinets.

Overloaded electrical outlets are the cause of many building fires. Do not create an octopus by inserting a series of two-way or three-way plugs into the same outlet. Connect only one cord to each receptacle socket. The use of extension cords is prohibited. If you need additional outlets, contact the Maintenance Department. When plugging or unplugging electrical equipment, be sure it is turned off; avoid touching metal or standing on a wet surface when doing so. For your safety, unplug electrical equipment by holding the plug and pulling it out of the socket; do not pull on the cord.

 

Suggested Actions to Take at Home

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