The devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy reminds us that natural and manmade disasters can strike at any time. HR consultancy Mercer’s 2012 Survey on Workforce Readiness: When Disaster Strikes, analyzed organizations’ disaster plans and policies, focusing on how companies gathered information, disseminated it to affected employees, provided for them, and handled relocations and any other special tasks during disaster events in 2011.
“While many companies have business continuity emergency plans in place to handle infrastructure, our research shows that many of these plans do not cover the impact of a displaced workforce,” said Samantha Polovina, the Mercer principal who oversaw the research. “As we saw during recent disasters, without a workforce plan, companies had to scramble to accommodate displaced and distraught employees,” she said in a media statement. An example would be a worksite that is operational, but that employees can’t get to because public transportation isn’t working. “This kind of issue needs careful thought and planning in advance to avoid worry and confusion,” the report said.
According to Polovina, two overriding themes emerged from the research. First, employers must have policies and procedures in place, so they can react quickly and effectively in case of a disaster. Second, when such events occur, employers need to issue clear and ongoing communication to all affected parties.
Several respondents emphasized the necessity for management to be flexible when disasters occur. One employer said “The business doesn’t run without employees, and employees won’t work if they are concerned about things at home. We put all available resources toward employee care, including free meals, shower facilities, emergency loans, family entertainment areas and a loosening of the dress code and personal e-mail usage.”
Survey Participants Offer Global Perspective
A total of 142 companies from around the world participated in the survey; most companies were located in the Asia Pacific region. The largest single country represented was the United States, which made up 30 percent of the total. The survey participants were from a diverse group of industries and split evenly between companies with annual revenues of less than $500 million and more than $500 million, according to Mercer.
Most Companies Have Disaster Workforce Readiness Plans
The majority of respondents (62 percent) have an established workforce readiness plan that addresses the impact disaster or crisis events may have on the workforce. Three-quarters of respondents include it in their overall business continuity plan, while 26 percent keep workforce readiness plans separate.
Despite the number of disasters that occurred in 2011, half of the respondents did not activate their plan. Of those that did, half did so in response to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Interestingly, about 30 percent of organizations with a workforce readiness plan followed it precisely; about 50 percent followed it somewhat; and 20 percent did not follow it at all, according to the report.
The department responsible for monitoring the situation during an emergency differs depending on if the affected area involves the workforce or the worksite. Most organizations (26 percent) rely on the HR staff in dealing with affected employees, while top management (23 percent) commonly manages the ongoing operations of the business and affected physical structures.
While timing may vary, the majority of companies provide updates to all employees (60 percent) and affected employees (57 percent) as information becomes available. The HR department was most often charged with communicating the updates.
In the event of a disaster, employers provide many types of assistance to affected employees, from access to employee assistance programs (43 percent) to food assistance (30 percent) and temporary housing (25 percent).
One-third of respondents will relocate their affected employees temporarily in the event of a disaster.
Nearly all organizations surveyed (93 percent) allow their employees to telecommute following a disaster. Forty-five percent grant some type of paid leave during the disaster. After the danger passes, most surveyed respondents (26 percent) grant unpaid leave to affected employees.
Best Practices Used During and After a Disaster
The report boils down several best practices offered by respondents:
- Gather credible information from multiple sources during and after a disaster, being cognizant that not all sources of information will be credible.
- Initiate and train an emergency response team that will go into action immediately when a crisis occurs.
- In the case of destroyed infrastructure: activate a backup facility, initiate your business continuity plan, allow employees to telecommute, communicate to customers and employees until the disruption is ended, identify critical positions beforehand, and provide an alternate work location for these individuals.
- Reach out to employees, assess their situations and respond to their needs.
- Work to establish and implement an employee relocation plan, especially in remote areas.
- Test alternate work arrangements at least four times a year.
- Remember that employees affected by disaster are part of the corporate family.
“Be flexible and treat employees honestly and fairly,” the report reminded.
Roy Maurer is an editor/manager for SHRM.
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