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HR Magazine - December 2000: Recovering from Covering Carnage

By Leigh Rivenbark  12/1/2000
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HR Magazine, December 2000Vol. 45, No. 12

As Alison Munn rode the elevator from the garage of Denver television station KUSA’s building on April 20, 1999, she expected her normal routine: The doors would open on the second floor where the finance department worked and where she, the station’s sole HR practitioner, had her office.

The doors opened on the second floor. That would be the last normal thing Munn would experience for days.

Finance was deserted. Sure that something was wrong, Munn switched on the television. She saw her station’s reporters and photographers broadcasting live from Columbine High School in Littleton. Two gunmen reportedly roamed the school.

She now knew where to find the missing finance department employees—in the newsroom. Like others, she hurried there to offer help. "We didn’t know at first that anyone was hurt," she says, remembering how everyone started grabbing phones, freeing newsroom staff to work on the unfolding story. Later, everyone would know the toll: 12 students, one teacher and the two student gunmen, all dead.

As Munn took viewers’ anxious calls—"They asked what happened to the kid who [escaped] out the window, or where to contribute to a memorial fund, or some just wanted to talk"—she also thought about her own next move. How could HR respond to employees’ needs during what promised to be a traumatic story?

This is Munn’s first HR job in journalism; she had joined the station less than a year earlier, after leaving an advertising agency job, and hadn’t encountered a situation like this. With no blueprint for what HR’s role should be, Munn had to invent her responses as she went along.

Her initial concern: "We wanted employees’ basic needs to be met and for them to be as comfortable as possible to do their jobs." Knowing that some employees literally would live at the station for the next few days, she hired a caterer to provide three meals a day for a week. She brought in a masseuse to give seated massages.

Munn also called the station’s employee assistance program director. By Friday, three counselors were at the station, camping in borrowed offices. "Only about three people saw them," she says. "In retrospect, it was probably too soon to have the counselors there. People were still concentrating on covering the story."

But Munn believed that employees might want counseling later. A week after the shootings, she arranged for a visit from a police psychologist—the same one who was helping police officers after the shootings. This time, 60 employees turned out for a group session. Munn then made more individual counseling available.

Munn also bought ribbons in blue and silver, the high school’s colors, and prepared them for newscasters to wear on their lapels. She gave employees a piece of poster board to sign with their condolences and to send to students, faculty and parents. "We heard back from [the community] that it meant a lot that people who were covering the story were affected by it," she says.

Though she braced for employees to request leave to deal with stress created by the killings and the constant coverage, such requests didn’t materialize. "It sounds awful, but news people get energized by a story like this, so we didn’t have people saying, ‘I need to leave’ or ‘I’ll be in late’" during the thick of the coverage, Munn says.

Later, at Munn’s suggestion, the station offered all 200 of its employees an extra day off, with pay, for use at any time during the rest of the year. Munn notes that giving a day off to everyone recognized that all employees, not just the newsroom staff, helped out. "Our job as HR professionals is to be certain that employees are appreciated, recognized and rewarded for their efforts and that their hard work and personal sacrifices are acknowledged," she says. "That’s what we tried to do under extremely trying circumstances, and we were successful in that regard."

While noting that "you can’t really plan for things like this," Munn adds that she learned lessons about how HR should help when the unexpected hits.

The next time a major, communitywide story breaks, "I would pay more attention to the needs of employees who are not involved in the coverage, because business goes on in other departments," she says. While news staffers are covering events, other employees—who might be upset by the news—must continue their routines despite the distractions. They might need extra attention from HR, she notes.

Munn realizes that other HR practitioners might think that the lessons learned from the shootings don’t apply to their workplaces. "Although my situation may not be exactly like those of other HR professionals, we all must deal with intense situations at some point," Munn says. "Whether it is a time-consuming project, meeting a deadline or dealing with an unexpected business event, our employees work together to make sure it gets done."

Munn always recognized that HR’s work was part of a team effort, notes Patti Dennis, KUSA’s vice president of news. "Alison gave great direction but she had people who could help her," Dennis says.

Munn says those helpers included management. "I knew the managers were taking care of their people," she says. "I knew the managers understood what the employees were going through. I certainly didn’t feel isolated in my efforts."

Leigh Rivenbark is an associate editor of HR Magazine.

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