HR Pros Weather the Storm

From Wilma to Harvey, hurricanes test HR leaders’ preparations, communication

By Dana Wilkie Aug 30, 2017
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​As Paula Harvey, SHRM-SCP, and her HR team prepared their workplace for Hurricane Harvey's landfall last Friday, they discovered a free messaging program that would allow them to send texts to multiple employees at a time with updates on office closures, remote work instructions, and where to find shelter and other help.

That discovery, coupled with an emergency plan that Harvey's team had already tested, kept everyone in touch as the hurricane roared into the Houston area. Harvey's company—Schulte Building Systems—is headquartered about a 30-minute drive from downtown Houston.

[SHRM members-only platform: Disaster Prep & Recovery on SHRM Connect]

"We had to go over our crisis plan on Friday," said Harvey, vice president of human resources and safety at the metal buildings manufacturing company in Hockley, Texas. "We had an innovative idea from my HR team to set up a texting instant message system, like the school systems do. It only takes me a second."

Using that texting system, Harvey's team notified employees that Schulte's operations would close down last weekend, Monday and Tuesday, and as of Tuesday, she was prepared to send the same message for Wednesday.

"We are very concerned about our 350-plus employees in the Houston area," she said. "The major effect has been work disruption during our busy season, but that can always be made up. We have tried to shift some of the work to our Alabama plants, but that's not always easy to do."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Business Continuity: What is the best way to plan for disasters that may affect our business?]

Harvey knows the importance of a solid, detailed, well-communicated disaster plan for the workplace. Too many companies, she said, put off testing their disaster plans, and find themselves scrambling when a disaster actually hits.

"Adequately brainstorming and planning ahead" are critical, said Harvey, who's a member of the Talent Acquisition Special Expertise Panel for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "Few companies ever test their plans out before the crisis. We were in the middle of writing a more formal plan when this storm hit, but we knew what to do and my management team is the best."

Tropical Storm Harvey strengthened into a hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico last week and made landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday night before moving offshore and making landfall again.

The affected area includes some of Texas' most populous cities, stretching along the state's Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi to Houston, and inland to Austin and San Antonio. Parts of Louisiana are also affected.

At least 30 people are dead, with many more injured, as parts of the Houston area were inundated with more than 50 inches of rain, according to forecasters. They say totals could reach 50 inches as rainfall continues through Wednesday.

Harvey has tweeted photos of her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren being rescued from their home in Katy, Texas, and of beds in a shelter in Houston where she is volunteering to help people whose homes have been damaged.

George Boué, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Stiles Corporation, a real estate company, has weathered several hurricanes in years past, including Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Wilma.  

His company has a Hurricane Preparedness Plan overseen by a hurricane committee that includes senior managers and other representatives from across the company's divisions. The plan spells out everything from which employees are in charge of phone trees to which gas stations and supermarkets in the area have generators. It has templates that supervisors can use to e-mail employees and detailed instructions for what supervisors should communicate to employees starting a week before an approaching hurricane.

"When a storm appears to be a potential threat, usually days ahead, the committee meets and starts putting procedures into play," said Boué, who sits on SHRM's Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Special Expertise Panel. "It wasn't until Hurricane Wilma [in 2005] that the response plan was put into full effect. Our office was functional because of our generators and IT preparedness, but one could not drive through downtown because of all the glass and debris on the roads. We have a calling tree, and that was very effective in tracking our people down. We used emergency equipment in our warehouse to assist associates whose homes were damaged. Most associates did not incur damage and were able to work remotely via the Internet. It took us about a week to get back to normal."

He pointed out that, even as prepared as his company has been in the past, it has never experienced the kind of flooding that has just hit Texas.

"While our preparations would no doubt make matters better, I believe catastrophic flooding like that in Texas would stretch our response abilities," he acknowledged.

He also acknowledged that no matter how carefully an HR department plans for a disaster, some things will be beyond its control.

"The most critical element is the ability to communicate, and for that you are dependent on the infrastructure to work," he said. Internet, texting and phone connections must all be in place.  During Hurricane Wilma, he noted, cellular outages meant the company couldn't reach some employees for a couple of days. 

Jonathan A. Segal is an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City and managing principal at the Duane Morris Institute, which provides training for HR professionals. He pointed out that at companies that employ unionized workers, employers need to check their union agreements before asking such workers to remain at the workplace during disasters.

"Employers need to consider some employees may need to stay on the employer's premises … and special rules apply. Employers will need agility to cope with the crisis. Collective bargaining agreements may limit that agility. Work cooperatively with the union as a business partner and … if the union is an impediment [to business operations], employers will need to weigh the competing labor and business risks."

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