HR – how does it work in an emergency?

For many years I worked at the Environment Agency and without doubt everyone got involved when there was flooding. As a senior manager I used to take turns with other managers to be a Duty Manager (and give the Regional Director a rest) and lead our region‘s response to any emergency situations over the weekend.

One weekend in particular in July 2007 sticks in my mind. The summer floods rudely interrupted everyone’s plans including mine for my daughter’s first birthday and I spent all weekend on the phone organizing sandbags and staff, to send to other parts of the country to stop people’s homes being flooded. It was serious life changing stuff.

As an HR professional I am aware that there are knock on effects. When I returned to my desk on Monday our organisation was in full scale GOLD alert mode in response to the flooding we were dealing with. This involved most of our staff and as the lead operational HR team we also went into Emergency response mode.

The recent weather has caused me to reflect on what I learnt then.

HR in times of EMERGENCY

Manage people by supporting them

Managing people in times of emergency is very different from when your organisation is in a steady state. From an HR perspective it is all about anticipating and facilitating everyone doing their job. This may include organising accommodation, refreshments, staff briefings, block booking rooms and drafting communications. Turn your hand to things you many not normally turn your hand to. Make it your job to constantly be aware of what needs to be done.

Staff health, welfare and stress

You will see people giving 110% and doing as much as they can. You will want to be among them checking in on them. Everyone from the CEO to the staff on the frontline. People in these situations need nudging: to sleep, to eat, to take time out and hand over to others. To talk about how they are feeling. We drafted in teams of counselors to support anyone that wanted to talk to them.

In particular media interviews can cause great stress and often people get caught in the spotlight with little training. Big organisations have experienced media teams to provide support and council – but HR need to be on the ball too, every employer has a duty of care whatever the situation.

Giving bad news

Whilst we didn’t lose anyone during the floods we were constantly checking on the welfare of all our staff and family were getting in touch if they hadn’t heard. It was tempting to give lots of extra information (especially as people would plead with you) but of course we had to check who they were and stick to facts – speculation is not appropriate during a crisis. Data Protection was still important and we were all mindful of that.

We did have a moment when a staff member went missing and we had to notify the next of kin. We involved the police as we are not trained to give such news and worked collaboratively with them. Luckily they were found working with another team. As part of our review of the emergency response, we ensured that all staff understood why following our strict protocols was important. Losing staff members in this situation can cause ripples as far as the House of Commons!

Document what you’re doing

In any large organisation the people at the top, the general public, the media will want regular updates and you will want to keep a record of the decisions you made and the facts you had to hand. If you are in a leadership role, take care to document at least three times a day what is happening – morning, afternoon, evening. The public sector and first responders have these systems in place already – but if your company, charity or organisation has a supporting role in an emergency, it’s worth you doing the same.

Don’t be a hero

Being in a support role may not be exciting but staying calm, consistent and centered to support everyone else is really important. Also not running yourself into the ground and following the advice you have dispensed to others. Lead by example and others will follow. Just as they will if you run around red eyed and a bit ragged.

Plan for the emergency to continue

Flooding emergencies in particular can go on for some weeks – and even your core office-based staff team may be needed to work emergency hours for some time. If the emergency is localized then many of your staff will be directly affected and not able to get to work. Think about which services are essential and which ones can wait. Plan a staff rota to ensure everyone gets a rest but that essential services are delivered. Things like payroll must continue, even in an emergency, staff being paid on time is one of the most important things you must do.

Brief and Debrief everyone

Even if your role is one of co-ordination, ensure that the workforce are regularly briefed about what is going on. If possible do this face to face so staff can ask questions. Many will want answers to questions. You may have a separate emergency budget they can tap into or need to put in an emergency rota or check that people know they can talk to you if they are worried. Take care about shouting out big successes as this can later embarrass you if it causes others to mirror the behavior which then causes problems.

Praise and thank staff

A good timely (so quite soon afterwards) de-briefing which includes naming and praising by senior management is critical. I was never prouder of the Environment Agency and my own HR team than when we were in Rapid Response mode. Highly professional, compassionate, supportive.

My thoughts are with anyone affected by the flooding.