Aftershock: What Would Your Business do at 2:47 PM?

Ken Koch

The tragedy caused by the 2:46 PM earthquake in Japan on March 11 is still unfolding, and perhaps will take years for economic and societal recovery. This event came with no warnings or watches. The earthquake in Japan should remind us that every company, human resources department and employee has a duty and responsibility to bde prepared. We should be prepared to act in all disaster situations, including hurricanes, floods, tornados, wildfires and yes-- earthquakes. These natural disasters can occur anywhere, at any time. They often occur with little or no warning. Yet, how prepared are you to support your staff and company?

Larger corporations will usually have entire departments or divisions whose job it is to design, develop and test Disaster Recovery plans. These usually begin as Information Technology initiatives and are focused on the backup and recovery of your software, data and servers/PCs. Extensive planning and testing occurs, and firms often contract with "hot site" vendors so they can restore these systems quickly at a remote location if a disaster strikes. However, a significant gap exists in many of these plans. The gap is related directly to the role of HR and the actual employees of the company.

Continuity of Operations Planning (or COOP) is a holistic approach to disaster preparedness. It focuses more on the organization versus the systems that a company needs to operate. The goal is to analyze all facets of the business and identify those key processes critical to the company. And guess what – HR is a major contributor (or should be) in these discussions. Why? Who has the current KSAs for all of the employees? Who stores the emergency contact information and usually assists with payroll and benefits? And who is usually the best trained in assessing and ensuring appropriate employee engagement? HR needs to be a key participant in the design, development, testing and execution of every COOP.

So how would a COOP help a company in Japan today? First, let’s assume the plan was clearly written and tested and the employees are well trained. As soon as the initial shaking subsided, the employees assigned to the emergency response team would quickly organize the evacuation (or shelter in place as applicable) of the building, as well as assist those that are injured with the basic medical training that they had received and kept current. Reaching the designated safe zone(s), HR would assist with headcounts and ensure that every employee on the premises was accounted for accurately.

The next step is often overlooked in most corporate plans I’ve reviewed. Employees must be allowed (assisted is even better) to learn about the safety of their families, neighbors, and also their own homes. Without this assurance that their loved ones are safe, employees will abandon their role in the corporate COOP and self-deploy to "rescue" their family. This abandonment behavior is well documented in the aftermath of Katrina and leads to the failure of the COOP and subsequent failure of the business. HR has a responsibility to help the company ensure that employee mental wellbeing is balanced and prioritized within a COOP disaster so that every key employee can remain focused and productive within their assigned role. Trained HR employees can also fulfill support roles in being the liaisons with families of COOP participants, grief support counselors, and assist with other mental health issues as appropriate.

As the disaster unfolds and the Continuity Plan begins to be put into action, HR’s role may change to one of support only. While some HR roles will have been identified as critical for the continued operations, several day-to-day tasks will no longer be needed or even possible. Yet, HR again can play a key role in ensuring all of the employees are aware of company and governmental support services available via regular and frequent communications. Yes, the methods for these communications have all been identified and laid out in the COOP and include more than email and telephone, both of which are most assuredly sporadic in Japan today!

Perhaps most important in the days and weeks ahead is the section of the COOP that addresses the recovery and restoration of the business back to its pre-disaster state. Again, HR is a critical partner in helping develop and execute these plans. Who better to onboard and properly prepare an employee for their first day back to work than HR? And HR will be the department to ensure that employees come back into a healthy work environment and be the ones to monitor and assist with any performance challenges.

Tragically, HR will also be the department called upon to replace those employees whose lives have been so affected by a disaster like the earthquake in Japan that they are not able to return.

It is now 2:45 PM at your company. Are you ready?

Read more about HR and the disaster in Japan:

When Disaster Strikes: How HR Can Prepare Your Workforce for Crisis