HR Disaster Tips
November 27, 2017

2017 has been a very costly year for natural disasters.  Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have torn a noticeable chunk out of the American economy this year. One estimate is that the two storms will knock a full percentage point off of economic growth this year, knocking projected GDP growth from 3.8 percent to 2.8 percent. Put another way, even with all the economic activity involved with rebuilding, the storms are likely to cost nearly a third of the entire country’s projected economic growth for the year.

AccuWeather’s initial estimates peg the combined costs of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as high as $290 billion – much of that will fall on uninsured or underinsured individuals, families and small businesses. That’s more than the inflation-adjusted cost of the entire 2005 hurricane season, which included Wilma, Rita and the infamous Katrina — about $200 billion.

Natural disasters of this magnitude have an inevitable effect on workers and their families. Employees who are still dealing with the aftermath of major disasters such as hurricanes and major earthquakes sometimes aren’t “all there,” when they report to work. They are frequently preoccupied with stressors, insurance claims, their own personal clean-up efforts and fatigue. This inevitably spills over into workplace productivity: Workers showing up with their minds elsewhere cost their employers up to $150 billion per year.

But major disasters (and terrorism strikes, in some cases) also provide HR professionals a chance to exercise some effective crisis leadership within their organizations – and more than justify their cost to the employer when it comes to reducing unnecessary worker stress, getting people refocused on the job, and in the long run, retaining and attracting top talent.

When things are at their worst, the top HR leaders at all levels of the profession can be at their best. Here are some things you and your HR team can be doing before, during and after a storm or other disaster to take care of your people.

  • Update emergency contact information companywide and consolidate the list.
  • Remind employees of employee assistance programs already available to them and encourage them to make use of them.
  • Ensure that workers who must remain on duty are able to communicate with family members.
  • Notify EAP vendors that employees may need assistance from EAP counselors located outside of the area that’s directly impacted by the disaster.
  • HR should work to account for the whereabouts and status of all employees and report it promptly to management. If any employees are dead, injured, have had immediate family members killed or injured, or have had their homes destroyed or severely damaged, HR should be consolidating their reports and forwarding them to senior management.
  • HR and line leadership should start working on a plan to accommodate employees who may be grieving, or whose capacity may be reduced for a time. HR can also coordinate an employee assistance program.
  • Company leaders should also contact other firms in their supply chain and keep them up to date.
  • HR should arrange for counseling services for employees. If your company doesn’t have an EAP (employee assistance program set up), get it up and running.
  • Begin setting up a timeline listing when employees expect to be able to return to work.
  • Identify key posts that may go unfilled after a disaster for any reason and work on a succession plan.
  • Prepare an employee information line and voicemail, as well as a website or Facebook page so employees can get the latest news during and after the disaster. Arrange for the permissions to update the employee information web page even if no one is in the office.
  • Plan for staffing recovery operations, if the workplace is damaged or destroyed.
  • Work with finance to calculate pre-disaster wages paid to prepare a business interruption insurance claim.
  • Have a plan for paying employees during or immediately after the disaster. Payroll must happen on schedule. If some employees are typically paid in cash or by check on site, try to arrange for direct deposit, or pay them early if you have disaster warning. Some employees may be in severe financial straits immediately after a disaster – especially if they are losing hours with a business temporarily closing – and they’re going to need their paychecks.
  • Some companies Fedex or arrange to print paper checks locally to get them in employees’ hands early.
  • Consider changing 401(k) plan documents to allow for in-service hardship or disaster-related withdrawals and plan loans, if you haven’t already.
  • Consider the need for a skeleton crew to remain on site during a disaster, such as a Hurricane, and staff appropriately.
  • Work with senior leadership to determine how missed workdays will be treated.
  • Back up all information in hard-drives to the Cloud, or move the computers to a safe location away from possible floodwaters.
  • Move hard-files to the 2nd floor, or transfer them by van or truck to a safe location ahead of time.
  • Arrange for hotels for key traveling personnel, HR and IT plus-ups and other employees traveling to affected sites from distant locations.
  • Work on a childcare assistance plan (if schools are closed after a disaster but you need employers to report to work).
  • Arrange a back-up power supply or alternate work location if you lose power at your normal work site.
  • Consider bringing EAP counselors to the worksite, as well as clergy or chaplains, post disaster, to work with small groups and individual employees. They may have issues they aren’t comfortable raising with their employer, but need resolution as much as possible in order to ensure employees can concentrate on their jobs. Your employees are not Superman. Nobody can concentrate fully on the job if their homes and families are not secure.
  • Schedule a family meeting time, if appropriate.
  • Push information out through multiple channels, including telephone, email, Web, social media and face-to-face.
  • Make sure leaders are visible, not hiding behind a desk and in meeting rooms. Delegate that kind of work as much as possible.
  • HR should lead in creating evacuation plans and emergency drills and rehearse them.
  • Ask both closed and open-ended questions. Studies following the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 revealed that many people who had lost their homes didn’t mention it to management, because they figured other people had it even worse.