On April 15th as the news was breaking that there had been an explosion at the Boston Marathon, I along with thousands of others held our collective breaths, as we watched the details unfold. A treasured American city had once again come under attack.
I was also one of the millions of Americans who watched with pride as the city’s first responders along with bystanders rushed to the scene to help those in need. As the hours passed and it was confirmed that it was a bomb, federal, state and local agencies began shutting down the city. “Shelter in place” was a new phrase I learned as thousands of Boston residents were unable to return to their homes much less their place of work.
By Friday, the city was in lock down and many employers were facing a communications crisis – notifying employees to stay at home. Several businesses sent out mass emails to employees all at different times. Some of those messages got through, others did not. That left some employees stuck at their place of work unable to leave and as you can imagine there was a lot of anger at employers who had failed to put an effective crisis communication strategy in place.
Sending text messages or emails is not a plan and as an HR manager, you need to ensure that if a crisis is unfolding, your organization is prepared to act quickly and efficiently. Because when the crisis is unfolding, thinking clearly will be difficult and thinking about what to do at that moment will probably not serve your organization or your employees very well.
Boston is a city filled with universities and hospitals, both of which typically have strong plans in place that may want to think about for your organization.
Email may not be the best form of communication. If you have hourly employees who may not have smartphones, the message may not reach them in time. However, most people have mobile phones and SMS text messages are a faster way to push information out.
Universities in Boston used them effecitively during the crisis. Both MIT and Emerson College used text messages to push alerts out. Emerson's alert went out at 5:10 Friday morning. And MIT's first alert went out at 11:01 pm Thursday night, shortly after a member of their campus police was found shot.
Have a system that multiple people can access from any location with multiple layers. If only one person has access to your emergency communication system and that person is involved in the crisis or unable to access work email, your system can’t be activated.
Having a team-based approach that allows everyone to access the system from outside the office will be more effective. Further, while communicating to employees’ mobile devices seems to be the best way to ensure timely communication, you can have multiple layers in place.
In addition to texting use email as a back-up. Employees may not think about checking their work email, so think about having personal email addresses on file as well so that you can send emails there as well.
Make sure employees know they will not be penalized for not coming to work. Many healthcare organizations have strict policies for employees who don’t report for work even in cases of emergencies like bad weather. Employees know they have to use vacation or personal time if they don’t report for duty. Make sure part of your communication policy includes letting employees no that standard policies do not apply and they will not be penalized for staying home.
For the companies that are not paying hourly workers for time lost or charging them sick or vacation time, they may be saving money in the short term but are undoubtedly creating negative feelings in the long term that are most likely being vented on social media. That's a PR nightmare you can avoid if you think about your employees ahead of time.
Finally, when the crisis is over evaluate your policy and procedures and see what you can learn from what happened. Until your system is tested during a real emergency you won’t know if there are flaws in the plan. If Boston taught us anything, it was events like these are now an unfortunate part of our lives and in the ever expanding role of HR, an effective communication plan is essential to avoid putting your employees in harms way.
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