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Controlling what we can in these uncertain times

President Bush has said we’re now in the first war of the 21st century. It is also the first war that has visited the workplace, and our office buildings and mailrooms have become the front lines.

Although so much is out of our control, there is plenty that we can and must control. The way in which we manage our workplaces amid the threats and fears will have profound consequences on the health of our organizations for many years.

A survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks found that 34 percent of the respondents did not have a disaster recovery plan in place. Fifty-four percent did have a plan, although comments revealed many of these plans were out-of-date or not comprehensive. Thirteen percent of the respondents did not know or were not sure if the organization had a disaster recovery plan in place.

Indeed, crisis management has rushed to the forefront. Today, across the United States, human resource managers are assisting their organizations to reduce future risks in several ways. They are facilitating new mailroom procedures, overseeing safety audits, ensuring that security systems are adequate, and setting up crisis communications plans. In recruiting employees, HR professionals are putting new efforts into background and reference checks.

How else can HR managers help their organizations avert, prepare for and recover from unexpected events? The following checklist, while not exhaustive, provides some basics:

1. Employee relations issues and policies.

  • Reinforcement of non-discrimination policies. Now is a good time to review and reiterate to employees the organization’s policies prohibiting discrimination based on national origin, religion or ethnicity. In times of stress, employees may let off steam by forwarding jokes or emails containing potentially harassing material. Managers must be trained to spot such activities, and must act to minimize company liability. Procedures for addressing complaints should be clear and current, and employees should be urged to report improper behavior.
  • Military leave policies. Policies regarding employees who take leave for military duty must comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. USERRA requires employers to grant employees up to five years off to fulfill military service obligations, and to offer continuous coverage under an employee health plan for up to 18 months to those absent because of military service. Upon release, employees must report for re-employment within certain time frames established by their length of absence. Employers cannot require employees to use accrued vacation or similar leave while performing military service.

While employers are not required to provide differential pay to employees who take military leave, a recent survey of 500,000 employers by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global human resources consulting firm, found that 80 percent of respondents were offering differential pay for five to seven months, and 74 percent were continuing medical benefits.

  • Time-off policies. Some organizations have formal policies granting employees time off, paid or unpaid, for community service such as volunteer rescue work. A few states – New York is not among them – regulate the pay, benefits and re-employment treatment for employees who take leave for volunteer work. Rochester-area employers who have multistate operations must abide by the law in all the locales where employees work.
  • Employers also should ensure that time-off policies are applied consistently. Making exceptions to such policies during the current national crisis – a time when many are feeling emotional and overly generous – might set a precedent that could legally obligate a company to treat all employees similarly in the future.
  • Addressing employee fear. How should an employer deal with employees who are afraid to travel or to enter high-rise buildings in order to attend essential meetings? What about employees who insist on certain protective gear, such as gloves or gas masks, which may be expensive or may interfere with job performance?
  • While some managers’ first instinct may be to do whatever is necessary to help employees feel safe – and, certainly, it’s critical that employers communicate their concern for traumatized employees – there may be a limit to how long an organization can sustain this new level of “caring.” Managers who notice a continuing problem with an employee may consider referring him or her to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

2. Safeguarding the workplace.

  • Disaster preparedness. How important is it that your company develop an effective business continuity and disaster recovery plan? Simply put, the risks are so high that a firm cannot afford not to. A survey published by Gartner, Inc., reported that two out of five companies that experience a disaster will go out of business in five years.

A disaster recovery plan must be multifaceted in order to keep the business operating while also safeguarding employees and information. The plan must be executed by a trained team of calm communicators, which ideally includes representatives from human resources, security/facilities, senior management, line management and public relations.

Disaster recovery plans cover protocols such as:

  • Where will the organization resume operations if a fire or other emergency forces a business from its facilities?
  • Should an operation be forced out during an emergency, can managers locate and communicate with every employee? How about customers, vendors and investors?
  • Everyone knows that files must be backed up regularly and stored at a separate, secure site, but how many organizations follow through?
  • Are employees trained in emergency preparedness? During an event, do they know their role and where they should go? Have employees with disabilities been assigned a partner in case an evacuation is necessary?
  • Does the organization have updated floor plans of the facility, noting the location of exits, fire extinguishers, water sources, hazardous materials and so on?
  • Have business insurance policies been reviewed? Some don’t cover acts of war or terrorism. It’s essential that potential liability issues be addressed before disaster strikes.

The American Red Cross has published an “Emergency Management Guide for Business & Industry,” which provides a step-by-step approach to disaster planning. This excellent publication can be obtained by contacting the Greater Rochester Chapter at 716-241-4481 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

No organization can be 100 percent safe all the time. But taking the initiative to control what is controllable not only will minimize the damage to a business in case of future disaster, it also will help anxious employees and managers cope more effectively during these stressful times.

© HR Works, Inc.

HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.