The Human Side of Crisis Management

July 29, 2004
Catastrophic workplace incidents impact people in ways that can have lasting negative consequences. Even crisis-prepared companies often overlook these needs.

Effective response to a workplace crisis a violent act, a serious injury or fatality or some type of natural or man-made disaster requires an understanding of what people need from management and how to provide it.

In Durham, N.C., a construction worker was killed on May 27 when a 100,000-pound concrete slab tipped over on him in an accident similar to one that killed three construction workers in Greensboro, N.C. in 2002.

On May 26, a clerk at a drugstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., was stabbed and killed when he confronted a man stealing razors and blades.

A factory worker in Indianapolis was killed May 27 when he was pinned between some equipment in a forklift accident. His coworkers watched as he was freed and transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Almost daily, employees are killed or seriously injured in the workplace while coworkers look on. Sometimes a single employee is involved in a life-threatening situation. At other times, an entire work force might be in jeopardy, such as when an explosion, fire or natural disaster strikes.

What do employees need beyond basic survival following a workplace disaster? They need immediate aid and assurance of safety; information and reassurance; understanding and ongoing support; and a rapid return to productivity. Other constituents, like family members, institutional investors, customers, suppliers and distributors, also have variations on these same needs.

There are right ways and wrong ways to provide for these needs. Unfortunately, companies tend to be least prepared in addressing these human-side aspects of crisis. Responsible employers should establish in advance a Humanitarian Response Team, which is trained and poised to address specifically, and only, the human side of workplace tragedies.


Workplace tragedies can compromise assets and lead to persistent human costs. Critical incidents threaten an organization's three core assets - its finances, reputation and people.

t A study conducted at Templeton College of Oxford University, "The Impact of Catastrophes on Shareholder Value," clearly demonstrated positive financial effects of adequate preparedness and effective crisis response.

t The Reputation Institute conducted a survey following the Sept. 11 attacks. Affected companies that were perceived to have responded well were rated significantly higher in all six categories used to define reputation than those that did not.

t Impact studies following incidents ranging from Hurricane Andrew to the Oklahoma City bombing have shown significantly increased morale and lower distress within companies that responded with appropriate support for their employees. Those that do not support employees risk on-going problems, such as damaged morale which can compromise productivity and reputation and employees who are experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can lead to increased medical/workers' compensation costs and possibly even lawsuits.

There are five excuses that managers and companies commonly offer for failing to have properly protected their core assets:

  • Denying it can happen: In the short term, many find it easier to simply assume the "it can't happen here" attitude.
  • Being reluctant to make crisis preparedness a priority: Competing priorities are often allowed to subvert efforts at vital preparedness.
  • Remaining unaware of risks inherent to your businesses: Without a comprehensive foreseeable-risk analysis conducted throughout your company's operations, the full range of risks you face are not highlighted.
  • Ignoring warning signs: Organizations often fail to critically analyze their own histories, or the disaster experiences of others in their industry or locale.
  • Relying on weak, untested plans: Unless your crisis plan has been thoroughly constructed and tested, it will not effectively protect your organization in a real crisis.


Human complexities must be prepared for and managed. Past approaches to crisis preparedness and response have tended to concentrate on the urgent, tangible challenges: putting out the fires, literally or figuratively; getting emergency medical care quickly to the wounded; securing sites and ensuring that there is not a cascade of related incidents; handling the media; and so on. In the chaos, corporate managers often only skim the surface of the human-side needs, often relinquishing their responsibilities to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). But a well-developed crisis management system takes account of the people issues that follow horrific incidents. You must be prepared to effectively address the myriad and disruptive people complexities that need full management attention.

Most companies that develop crisis plans set up and train emergency and crisis-response teams, and establish procedures for them to follow. But the people needs of your work force (and sometimes, the people needs of neighbors, shareholders and members of the general community, who may also have been affected by your incident) are just as important to your organization's recovery in the long run. The wise organization will also establish in advance a Humanitarian Response Team, which is trained and ready to address specifically, and only, the human side of what happens.

A Humanitarian Response Team could include representatives from management, human resources, external crisis consultants, Employee Assistance Program, legal and other branches of your organization. It should be well prepared with a clearly organized schedule of tasks and areas of specialized responsibility for its members just as your primary disaster-response team, whose brief is to "put out the fires" is similarly primed.

Generally, local management and their Humanitarian Response Team can follow these essential functions after a significantly traumatic workplace incident.

In the Immediate Aftermath ...

Gather employees into a secured area. There are several reasons to do this.There may still be dangerous conditions elsewhere at your location, which you do not want workers to risk their safety by encountering, or there may be a crime scene, which must not be contaminated. Be aware that media representatives and overly eager plaintiff attorneys may encroach. When employees are gathered, you can communicate with your work force and address their needs. Having everyone in one place makes those functions possible. Enlist co-workers to stay with those who are especially distressed.

Your team members will not likely be able to closely monitor everyone who is upset by what happened and also will probably not know everyone personally. Asking co-workers to "buddy-up" is a solution with several advantages. The very distressed are not left alone and unattended; the less distressed feel involved and useful, and if the person they are teamed with needs your assistance, they can let you know.

Don't let employees leave until released by management. Arrange a gatekeeper for assessment. Make contact with everyone to make sure that all injuries are identified. Some may be too distressed to drive safely. Arrange transportation. Find out where people will be, in case communications need to go out before they return to work.

Hold an employee egress meeting before your people go home. This is your opportunity to acknowledge the shock and disbelief. It is the time to reconstruct the facts of the incident, as far as you are able. Tell employees that it is best not to talk to reporters. It is a time to answer any questions people have to expel rumors and minimize misunderstandings. Also, announce that you will hold an employee briefing meeting with up-to-date information when people return to work hopefully the next day.

Deal appropriately with family members. Your trained team of "family representatives" would very likely be called upon to deal with the families of any of your workers who have been seriously injured or killed. This is a very specific area of responsibility - requiring enormous clarity of purpose, compassion and tact and just as the airline industry has done, it should be trained for in advance. Make contact with family members of casualties, whether at the hospitals, homes, airport or other appropriate location.

In the Ensuing Days ...

Hold an employee briefing meeting when workers first return. Openly review the facts of the incident as they are now pieced together and understood. Explain what measures management has taken to deal with the situation. Tell people what to expect in the near term, and on what timetable. Answer questions, hear concerns and deflate rumors.

Hold crisis intervention group sessions. It is essential to offer people the resources they may need to recover emotionally from the shock of the incident they experienced. For many years, it has been a standard practice to provide Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) sessions, in which they recount what they experienced. Disturbing research now indicates that, while well intentioned and often well received, debriefings can in some cases exacerbate the distress people are feeling. Some research indicates diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder is more likely while there is no objective evidence that debriefing actually accelerates people's recovery processes.

In the aftermath of a traumatic incident, however, employees expect management to provide services that demonstrates caring and compassion. So, it is important to invite people to a meeting at which you can again acknowledge the distress they may be feeling, and offer a range of resources they can take and use to jump-start and support their own innate abilities of resiliency. These might include onsite group and individual sessions with crisis counselors, handouts detailing resiliency-enhancing strategies (but not the common listing of the symptoms that can inadvertently lead some employees toward feeling worse), reminders of medical benefits and Employee Assistance Program services.

Research and best practice standards indicate that it is vital to have only skilled crisis-management professionals monitor and follow-up on how your work force is recovering over the longer term, and to provide additional support services.

No one likes to contemplate the effects a catastrophic incident might have. But there is no question that good planning can minimize them and that a broad awareness of the impact crises have on people must be central to that planning. By ensuring that your people recover quickly, you are effectively managing one of your organization's core assets and accelerating return to normal productivity. The human-side of crisis cannot be overlooked during crisis preparedness, response and recovery.

Bruce T. Blythe, CEO of Crisis Management International, and author of "Blindsided: A Manager's Guide to Catastrophic Incidents in the Workplace," heads a worldwide network of crisis consultants. He has worked with hundreds of companies dealing with business continuity planning, crisis preparedness, response and recovery.

For more about Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and the workplace, visit Occupational and click on the article "The Mind-Body Connection: Workplace Conflict, Stress & the Risk of Injury."

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