Copley Square, Boston

Copley Square, Boston

Over the past ten days I have been following the stories about the Boston Marathon Bombing. Like so many others, I have felt the shock and anger at the brutal murders and senseless carnage, but have also been touched by the countless demonstrations of courage and support for every one whose life has impacted. Whether it was a runner in the London Marathon donning a black armband, or a survivor from the Boston Marathon returning to the blast site to leave a pair of running shoes, many people were trying to answer the questions, “What can I do in the face of this tragedy? How can I show solidarity and help people begin the healing process?”

For ten days I have been trying to answer those same questions, and as I sat in front of my computer to write this blog, I found my mind drifting to the times in my career when incomprehensible tragedy hit near or within an organization where I was the HR leader. I started to recall the actions my team and I took to show people that “the company” really cared and supported their employees in a very personal way.

I have been the HR leader more times than I care to count when a tragedy has impacted my organization. Each situation was different, each one was heart wrenching and none of them were easy to work through. In my case, each situation took place in a remote location, in an office or community located some distance from the corporate location where I worked. What was common to each situation is that HR was called upon to provide support designed to help the employees cope and set the stage for the healing to begin. It is from these experiences that I learned that HR must show leadership in the face of tragedy.

Below are some actions to be taken following an event. This is not intended to serve as a full business continuity plan but to summarize some key things HR must do:

Contact the senior manager of the impacted location to ascertain the status of the workforce.  Is everyone accounted for? Has anyone been seriously injured or had a family member or close friend seriously impacted? Is she/he aware of any specific issues that need personal follow-up?

Anticipate obstacles, barriers and disruption that have impacted the team and intervene. I cannot list all of the possible issues that an employee may have to deal with, since each event is unique and employees will be impacted differently. However, as you gather information, repeatedly ask yourself, “How can we make this easier?”  Be proactive and creative. If an employee is having trouble with approval for a benefit, call the carrier. If transportation has been effected, organize car pools, make Zip Cars available or offer telecommuting options.  A word of caution:  if you do offer “special benefits,” make sure to communicate that they are temporary, and establish an end date if possible.

Make grief/trauma counselors available and convenient. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, contact them and arrange to bring a counselor(s) on site or to a convenient location for several days. If you do not have an EAP you can find a qualified counselor through your health care provider or other resources. People will need to talk about their experience and emotions in a safe and confidential environment.  A professional will be able to help people process their feelings. He/she will also be able to offer suggestions about how the organization may best support the employees.

Develop and distribute communication to the impacted employee group, to the overall organization and to clients, if appropriate.  Act quickly to facilitate a communication strategy. At a minimum you will want a communication piece from the most senior leader to the impacted employees, using a method that is accessible and as personal as possible. Communicate with the non-impacted employees to provide them with the facts of the situation, any near-term changes in the operations, an overview of the support the company is providing and suggestions about how they can help. Develop any external communication that may be needed for clients, vendors, job candidates and others. Finally, be certain that key personnel understand any instructions or protocol for dealing with the press or investigators.

Allow employees the time to grieve and heal with their families and communities. Here’s where you will need to balance flexibility with reason. People will need time to heal and may need time to reorganize their daily routines for themselves and their families—give it to them. You may also need to make some personal exceptions and accommodations for unique circumstances.

Plan or participate in a group event that offers closure and sets the stage for healing.  In the case of death, this may involve time off to attend a memorial or holding your own special memorial time on site. If the company chooses to sponsor its own memorial service, use a professional counselor as a facilitator and make sure to avoid any religious overtones.

Stay in touch. Do not assume that once the initial event has passed that everything will return to normal.  Of course, the organization and the people will eventually need to move forward, so stay in touch with their progress. Talk with the local manager frequently. Provide support and follow-up as necessary for as long as necessary.