HR Hero Line

The human side of crisis management

What would your company do if it was faced with a crisis? It’s a question that’s getting harder and harder for businesses to ignore, especially in the face of crises such as Superstorm Sandy.

Employees Aren’t Just ‘Human Resources,’ They’re Human Beings

When many companies look at disaster planning, they focus on how to prevent crises and avoid disruptions to business, protect the company’s assets during a crisis, and get the business back up and running after a crisis. What may be overlooked are the employees’ needs. “HR’s role is to represent the human side of this organization or this process,” said Michael G. McCourt, a security management consultant.

Being a part of businesses’ crisis-management plan is a new role for many in HR, but it’s a necessary one. Traditionally, HR is one of the few departments in most companies that deal with every employee and act as a liaison between management and employees. It also has expertise in managing people and helping employees deal with health and personal issues. “[HR touches] everybody in the business,” McCourt said. “They need to be trained and educated in [crisis management] and share and promote that need for crisis management throughout the organization. They are uniquely qualified to do that. They can be the bully pulpit to make people understand it’s important.”

HR’s should play an integral part in the three phases of any crisis — planning, responding, and recovery. The planning and recovery phases are when HR is most involved.

Threat Management

Every company should have a crisis-management plan. The first step is to look at your company with a creative eye and identify what types of emergencies it might face. For example, a supermarket or convenience store with freezers or refrigerators will lose valuable products if they don’t have a plan to deal with a power failure. Another issue to consider is what Mother Nature might throw your way that would disrupt your business. While the Southeast is vulnerable to hurricanes and the flooding and tornadoes they can spawn, in the Northeast, blizzards are most likely to shut down businesses, strand workers, and damage their homes and vehicles.

Once threats have been identified, the plan should explain how the company would deal with them. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer that will work for everyone. How your company deals with a crisis will depend on a number of factors, including the company’s size and type of business. For example, a small company that must have personnel on-site during and after a storm might have a crisis plan that includes having a two- to three-day supply of water and nonperishable food on hand. The same solution probably wouldn’t work for a larger company.

Having a good plan in place and following it will help employees weather the storm well. And employees who don’t have to worry about their basic needs — shelter, food, water, and the safety of their families — will be better able to help the business recover from the storm. “When people are really stressed, one of the first things that’s knocked out is cognitive function,” McCourt said. “Having a strong plan in place documenting what you’re going to do is critically important. That is something HR can drive.”

Crisis Management

Once a crisis has happened, HR’s role is accounting for employees and maintaining contact with them. “You need to have a method in place to gather information on the status of the company and the status of employees,” McCourt said.

You’ll need to consider how the company will establish and maintain contact with employees during and after a crisis. It’s important that employees know before a crisis hits how you’ll be communicating and how to contact the company. It’s also important to have a plan B for communication in case the infrastructure to support your original plan isn’t working (e.g., phone lines are down). Again, that’s an area where creativity will help. You might be able to use the company’s website or blog to let employees know what’s going on and when they can return to work. Another idea is to look into whether text messaging might still be functional even if cell phone call service isn’t.

When you’re creating the communications portion of your crisis plan, make sure employees know exactly whom to contact. “Let them know exactly who to call, not just ‘call HR,'” McCourt said. “Little things like that make a big difference in a crisis.”


Once the initial crisis has passed, HR has a significant role in helping the company and employees get back on their feet. In this phase of the crisis, HR’s job is to know where employees are and what they need to get their lives back together and return to their work. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do the employees need shelter, psychological support, or food?
  • How can the company assist them?
  • What’s the status of the company?
  • What does it need to get up and running again?

How your company handles this aspect of a crisis is just as critical as the first two phases. Employees are more likely to stay with a company that’s supportive and understanding of their need for things such as time off to deal with personal matters. Employers that forget that their employees are first and foremost human beings may lose them and have to devote time to interviewing, hiring, and training new ones.

Test, Retest, and Test Again

Putting together a comprehensive plan is only the first step in preparing for a crisis. You need to give the plan a test run to see if it actually works. You don’t want to find out it doesn’t work when you’re in the middle of a crisis. “Many plans amount to nothing more than doorstops,” McCourt said. “I’ve worked with companies that have plans that just sit on a shelf. HR can drive the company to test their plans and see what works and what doesn’t.”

As we said earlier, denial is the number one mistake most companies make when creating crisis-management plans. The second most common mistake is not having a backup plan. “You have to make sure you have systems that are redundant so that if things fail, you have a backup,” McCourt said.

In your plan, be sure to include information about which employees need to be at work during and after a crisis and where they should be working. It may be important to split up senior management so they aren’t all in one location. Employees may need to go to an alternate work site if their usual work location isn’t operational.

Once your plan and its backup are in place and you’ve tested both, you need to revisit them often to make sure they’re up to date and relevant. McCourt recommends that you discuss the crisis-management plan once a month. Some events that might trigger you to revisit your plan include employees leaving the company and new employees joining it. You’ll need to consider the role departing employees played in the plan and who will do that now and how new employees will fit into the plan.

Another time you may want to revisit your plan is after a major crisis hits another company or region of the country. It’s much less painful to learn from others’ mistakes than your own. Stay abreast of how different crises were handled. Conferences, training sessions, seminars, and workshops in crisis management for HR professionals are available to help you stay up to date on managing the human aspect of a crisis.

Helpful Resources

Information on crisis planning for businesses is available from several government agencies and nonprofit organizations:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides crisis-management information for businesses at

The American Red Cross offers information for employees and businesses on emergency preparation at

An emergency-management guide for business and industry is available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency at

Disaster-planning information is offered by the Small Business Administration at

Is your company prepared to deal with a crisis? Don’t wait for disaster to strike. Have an emergency management plan in place to keep your employees safe and your core business operations intact before, during, and after a crisis. Learn the best practices for handling a workplace emergency from preparation to response by participating in the interactive one-day extended webinar “Emergency Management at Work: How to Prepare for and Respond to a Crisis Situation.” For more information or to sign up, go to or call 800-274-6774.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *