Though it’s nearly impossible to predict when a crisis situation will occur, it’s easy to envision the devastating effects that hazards presented by violence, illness, technological failure, or natural catastrophe could have on your company’s operations.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I saw an entirely new dimension of need for employee care and assistance before, during, and after a crisis. As a psychology professor and licensed clinician, I witnessed the impact of our collective trauma and longing for security and saw a new role for employee assistance programs to play. Since then, my company has actively tracked every major crisis, mass shooting, terrorist attack, and natural disaster so that we can reach out to clients and offer critical incident response services that go beyond the event itself to include emergency referrals, communications support, and ongoing services.
This need for crisis preparedness and planning has only increased: Each year, 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence. Additionally, natural disasters — which can devastate small businesses in particular — have quadrupled in frequency since 1970. Serious illnesses, power outages, and data breaches can also cripple business operations. Companies that establish business continuity plans can help save their operations and save lives, as long as the policies don’t overlook their most valuable assets: people. A solid plan that protects employees should start with these steps:
- Conduct a vulnerability audit. Preparedness planning should begin with a vulnerability audit: a thorough risk assessment that takes into account demographics, community environments, and office structures to identify potential threats and set appropriate planning priorities.
Assessing security gaps is a critical part of a vulnerability audit and often presents location-specific challenges. For example, many of Silicon Valley’s top tech companies have open, college campuslike settings that reflect their laid-back work cultures. Security isn’t obvious, and employees worry about unauthorized people slipping into buildings behind someone who scans a badge to open doors. In that way, the unique elements of a workplace can also be its greatest security weakness. A comprehensive risk assessment is essential to recognize and address gaps.
- Create a continuity plan. Identify which operations are critical for business survival and recovery. Develop a continuity action plan that includes contingencies for different types of crisis events. Plans should, in detail, document each step and allocate the budget needed for preparations, training, and plan execution.
Create a crisis response team of people from across the company who will take the lead in an emergency. Then, train them to assess threats, build communication strategies, and ensure that everyone knows what to do. Understanding who will execute emergency procedures and practices for all kinds of crisis situations will help ensure business continuity and resilience in the aftermath.
- Prioritize training, including workplace violence prevention. Training for all employees is the foundation of any crisis plan. Along with initial training, build in annual refreshers and situation-specific sessions. Make violence prevention a central focus, and tailor it to the company and the industry.
OSHA’s definition of workplace violence is broad and includes both acts and threats of physical violence as well as any kind of threatening, disruptive behavior such as harassment, intimidation, or coercion. To be effective, violence prevention should be specific to the industry. For example, bankers have radically different interactions with clients than nursing professionals do with patients and thus require different preparedness training.
In every industry, prevention programs should train employees to recognize warning signs, seek assistance, avoid physical harm, and report incidents to law enforcement. Equally important, make sure all employees know the plans for evacuations, lockdowns, and sheltering in place.
- Create a comprehensive communications plan. Communication is critical in any crisis. From emergency text alerts to setting up a way to receive “I’m OK” messages from employees, establish clear communication processes, and test them regularly.
During an active shooter situation at YouTube’s offices in 2018, the company used its official Twitter account to direct employees to shelter in place. Employees also leveraged social media to share information with law enforcement, media, and one another. Training should cover how to effectively use social media to communicate in real time while avoiding the confusion that can come from clogging the channels with speculation and irrelevant information.
- Make mental health resources available 24/7. Beyond the physical safety of employees, it’s equally important to address mental health and resilience in the aftermath of traumatic events. Several studies document that at least 15% of disaster survivors experience post-traumatic stress disorder and increased mental health issues. Work closely with the company’s employee assistance program to assess mental health support services and ensure coverage for employees and their families during and after critical incidents.
When my team was called on to provide crisis support for a client after a workplace shooting in 2017, we saw firsthand how the unexpected terror turns lives upside down. The company’s leaders drew on every resource they had to communicate effectively, support employees and their families, and build employee resilience with mental health support.
Unfortunately, critical events and crises occur with distressing frequency. Taking action in advance helps companies do more than keep the company running — it protects the lives and livelihoods of the people behind the business in the face of the unimaginable.
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