Recovering and rebuilding after a disaster: Part 4 – Helping your employees through a crisis

This article is part of a series of seven articles to help businesses recover and rebuild after a disaster. Other documents in this series:

The first hours after disaster strikes your business are critical for its recovery. Everyone with any connection to your firm will look to you for guidance, direction and hope. How you respond will send powerful messages to your stakeholders, customers and employees. The correct response can mark a turning point for your company. However, if handled poorly, the incident can create mistrust, confusion, lower productivity and ultimately reduced financial performance.Open for business

It’s important to remember that a business disaster is not just about dollars and cents or profit and loss. It is also about the human capital invested in the company. Your employees make up your business. They are your most important asset, so you will want to ensure that you respond appropriately with both competence and compassion. You will need to display your concern for the personal tragedy in the disaster at the same time you help employees, customers and other stakeholders begin to put the next steps in place. You must create structure out of the chaos and confusion.

Unfortunately, an occasional outcome of a business disaster is a blaming mentality. Employees and other stakeholders may hold leadership accountable for problems resulting from the crisis whether they should be held accountable or not. At this time, it’s important to remember the very human reactions that a disaster can elicit.

People who have experienced a severe trauma often fall back on rather primitive and emotional defenses. They will seek to find safety and feel secure. They may not be logical, and longer-range thinking is set aside. Decisions are often less rational and more emotional.

Because they have experienced a complete lack of control over their circumstances, many people who have lived through a catastrophe will attempt to make sense of it so they feel as though they retain some control. In this way, they believe they can prevent it from happening again. They will seek to find an answer to the question of why the disaster occurred and why to them. In the absence of fact, many people will create the answers to those questions, which often lack objectivity.

In addition, people impacted by such tragedies will often withdraw from others as a result of distrust. Your employees may pull away out of fear and uncertainty. You will need to reach out proactively in some cases to ensure that employees remain engaged in your company and its rebuilding.

Here are some steps you can take to help your employees through a difficult time:

Discuss the disaster openly.

  • Acknowledge that it happened and that it was, indeed, catastrophic.
  • Be sure you know the facts of the situation in terms of what happened and what will happen next. But don’t theorize. Only report the facts as you know them.
  • Speak frankly. Avoid euphemisms. Tell it like it is. If someone died, you need to discuss it.
  • State that you know the tragedy has an impact on everyone, that everyone will experience it differently and that it will take individuals varying lengths of time to recover.
  • Share your story. If you are personally touched by the disaster, speak openly about it.

Demonstrate caring leadership.

  • It is important at a time like this to demonstrate to your employees that you are a human being with feelings and emotions just like theirs. But you also need to demonstrate leadership and competence to handle the situation so that employees feel they are in good hands as they work through the disaster.
  • If you need the help of a consultant, mental health professional or someone with expertise in helping people through disasters, find it and employ it. The time and money you spend will be more than worth it in employee loyalty and your firm’s recovery.
  • Develop a crisis response plan that includes caring for your employees both personally and professionally. Being prepared is the best response.

Help through the transition.

  • To the extent you can be truthful, reassure employees that you and they will get through this. Do what you can to help your employees start to think like survivors and less like victims.
  • While employees should not be expected to immediately function like they did before the crisis, they will recover more quickly if given specific, manageable tasks. Their recovery will be a process, and it is important to have reasonable patience with this as they return to work and their usual level of productivity.
  • Be very proactive in your leadership. Be present. Be reliable. Be accessible. Be realistic.
  • While every employee is different, and some will require more time to adjust than others, don’t allow long periods of time away from work to continue beyond a reasonable period. The best way to overcome these tragic situations is to face them and re-engage as soon as possible.
  • If employees need personal help of an emotional nature, help them find the resources they need.

The way a business owner or manager handles a disaster in the early hours following the event as well as the weeks and months beyond will write the story of the company’s recovery. Be sure your story has a good ending.