Tag Archives: crisis management

Remembering September 11: Lessons in Crisis Management

National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTCI’ve written several posts about crisis management, so it surprised me to realize that in over five years of blogging, I’ve never written about my experience on September 11, 2011. I’ve barely mentioned that date at all, even though the heartbreaking day not only shook me personally but provided a huge opportunity for learning as an HR executive.

I lived and worked in the Central Time Zone at the time, an hour behind the East Coast. I was in an early meeting with other members of the Human Resources staff in my company that Tuesday morning. Shortly after we started the meeting, an administrative assistant came into the room to tell us that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. We acknowledged the tragedy, but continued our meeting. Then a few minutes later, she reported that another plane had struck the other tower. At that point, it was clear that the collisions were intentional—the U.S. had been struck by terrorists. We stopped our meeting, and those of us on the company’s crisis management team, including myself, gathered to determine the impact on our company.

It might seem that a corporation a thousand miles away from the attacks should not have any issues, but our multinational company had locations around the U.S., including on the East Coast. We had employees traveling on business. We had thousands of employees throughout the nation concerned about family and friends near the affected sites. And everyone, of course, was fearful of another strike.

Through the course of that day, we worked on the following issues:

— We immediately began providing the best information we could to employees. For the first time ever, we allowed the intra-company communications monitors at each major location to broadcast national news, rather than static screens of company news. A few departments had televisions going all day long, but we wanted employees working in departments without televisions (i.e., most employees) to have ready access to information as well. Yes, productivity suffered, but it would have anyway, and making the information easily accessible was one way to show employees we cared about their concerns.

— Our Travel Department searched the travel records of all employees away on business and contacted them to determine if they were safe (they were). Because all flights in the U.S. were canceled for the next few days, we also started making alternative arrangements get those employees home. In many cases, we had to authorize one-way rental cars from the coasts to get people home. These were expensive trips, but we knew the most important thing was getting employees back to their families during this national crisis.

— We also assisted vendor and customer representatives on our sites to make arrangements to return to their homes also.

— We prepared a video message for our CEO to deliver to all employees. By midafternoon on September 11, our communications experts had recorded our CEO in a video that we put on our monitors and on the company intranet site. The CEO conveyed his sympathy to those inside and outside the company impacted by the catastrophe and said that he and other corporate officers were as devastated by the day’s events as everyone else. He also provided information on how we were handling the crisis — that the company had located all of our traveling employees and determined none had been on the downed planes and that we were working to bring the others home as quickly as possible.

— We brought in grief counselors to our major locations to conduct group sessions with employees who were emotionally distraught by the day’s news, and provided information on our Employee Assistance Program in case employees wanted more individualized counseling.

Our crisis management team continued these activities for several days, until the nation and its transportation system returned to normal. But, of course, nothing has been the same in the sixteen years since those awful events.

I learned that day the reality of the importance of communications during a crisis. It is one thing to read articles on crisis management, like this one. It is another thing to live it and to know that what you are doing is having an impact, for better or for worse, on the morale of your organization.

I learned it is important to not only communicate facts but empathy as well. Company leaders and managers must seek out and pass on accurate and timely information. But good leaders must also be emotionally congruent with others in their organization. This emotional support is critical, even though at the same time management is providing direction and channeling people’s energy toward productive activities. And leaders must recognize that sometimes the most important thing is to pause and acknowledge feelings before productive behaviors can resume.

A crisis can be an opportunity to bring an organization closer together, but only if it is managed well.

What lessons have you learned while handling a crisis?

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When Your CEO Dies

man-76202_640I’ve been interested in succession planning since my early years in Human Resources—and particularly in succession planning at the top of the house. Perhaps that’s why my novel, Playing the Game, begins with a CEO near death and the impact that has on the corporation. So I read with interest a recent article that dealt with how to cope with the death of a key executive. Of course, the most important point is to be prepared.

“What Would Happen If Your CEO Died?”, by Branigan Robertson and Sean Reis, published on February 2, 2017, on the always excellent TLNT.com, asks what HR should do to minimize the impact of the death of a key executive.

Here are the recommendations the authors make, along with my commentary:

1. Purchasing life insurance on high-ranking managerial employees

For most companies, this is a matter of balancing cost against risk. In my opinion, insurance will only make sense for some companies—typically larger companies, or those in which an executive’s passing could end the organization’s existence. For other companies, particularly where a successor is in place, insurance may not be necessary.

2. Knowing who is next in command for each critical position, including the CEO, to fill immediate leadership gaps

This is critical. Everyone should have a back-up, just as stage actors have stand-ins. In some cases, this will be a deputy or assistant to the executive. In other cases, power will devolve up the corporate ladder, and the deceased executive’s boss may need to act in an emergency. In still other situations, a former executive might be called back into the role. And in the case of the CEO, a Board of Directors member may need to fill in, if there is no executive the Board trusts.

The important point is that stakeholders need to know immediately who acts in place of the deceased (or incapacitated or otherwise unavailable) executive.

3. Having access to all critical information

Arranging for ongoing access to critical information is part of any good crisis management plan—and the loss of a key executive is certainly a crisis. Part of the issue is making sure someone has access to corporate information, such as server passwords, financial records, tax returns and payments, bank account and payroll information, debt instruments, shareholder and Board member information, key contracts and insurance policies, critical vendor and consultant contact information—the list goes on.

And each business will also have critical systems of its own, and all of these need a crisis management plan. What systems in your organization have only one key person with access to the data?

In addition to critical corporate information and documents, it is important to know how to access contact information for employees’ family members—at least one next-of-kin or emergency contact for every employee.

4. Dealing with emotions

The loss of a key employee will impact the morale of the entire organization—the more respected and liked the individual, the more the rest of the employees will grieve. And the more critical the person was to the organization, the more employees will worry about their future.

Other leaders need to recognize, validate, and overcome employees’ sense of loss—often when these leaders knew the deceased the best and are most devastated by the death. It is probably a good idea to bring in grief counselors (usually from the company’s Employee Assistance Program, if one is in place), to help the organization mourn the loss and move on.

5. Having a succession plan in place to speed filling the position on a long-term basis

Beyond the immediate need to deal with the crisis and keep the business running, it is important to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is if the position is filled or the duties of the deceased executive are otherwise distributed. The more planning done in advance, the easier this will be.

Is your organization prepared to lose a top executive?


Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Playing the Game, Workplace

A Gorilla of a Crisis: Three Lessons for Managers After Harambe’s Death


(Photo: Jeff McCurry/ Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden)

In February 2009, President Obama’s then-Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The idea behind his comment apparently originated with the economist Paul Romer, who in November 2004 said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

My corollary is that “A crisis can be happen at any time.” And leaders must be prepared for crises, whenever they occur.

I wrote last week about when time is on your side, and when it is not. I didn’t think I’d have a clear, well-publicized example of when time is not on your side so soon after that post.

When a toddler fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo over Memorial Day weekend, the zoo leaders immediately had a crisis on their hands. It was a crisis in which time was not their friend—a human life was at stake. I don’t know who authorized the shot that killed the gorilla, but it was the right thing for the zoo personnel to do.

Of course it was sad—Harambe, a beautiful silverback gorilla in his prime, was acting like gorillas act. He was unintentionally providing the type of demonstration of gorillas’ strength that zoo visitors wanted to see (although none of them expected to see a child harmed). He didn’t deserve to die.

But the zoo personnel had no choice. There was no time to soothe the gorilla, who was banging the little boy about in a concrete-lined pool. There was no time to argue about how the boy got into the gorilla enclosure, or whether the fences were adequate. A human life was at risk, and the most certain way of eliminating the risk was to shoot the gorilla with a kill shot. Good crisis managers can make that call in an instant.

This incident offers three lessons for leaders of any institution, in my opinion:

1. Articulate and discuss in advance your principles for decision-making.

I’ve done some work with an institution that works with animals and the public, similar to the Cincinnati Zoo. That institution made it clear in their policy manual, given to all employees, that human life came first. The animals’ care and comfort were of primary importance, more so than offering the public the show they wanted, but human life and health were paramount to all other concerns.

Under the structure that this institution set out for its employees, the Cincinnati Zoo made the only call possible.

2. Don’t be dissuaded by public opinion; hold firm to your principles.

The Cincinnati Zoo has incurred a lot of wrath for killing Harambe. The negative publicity may have started with PETA, but many others have also spoken against killing the gorilla, which, as noted above, did nothing wrong. The Cincinnati Zoo has appropriately defended itself, explaining why it took the action it did in unapologetic terms.

When you and your employees did what you were supposed to do, explain yourself directly and undefensively. This is one reason to have your policies and principles articulated in advance. If you’re prepared, you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with your explanation. The time to hash through your principles is before a crisis, not during.

3. Take the time to learn from each crisis.

After every crisis or near-crisis in which your principles are tested, it’s important to consider again whether any of your policies or procedures (or even principles) should change. No one is infallible, and we should refine and adapt as time passes and we face more complicated and nuanced situations. I am sure the Cincinnati Zoo has (or will soon) conduct some type of after-action review.

Other institutions can and should also learn from the incident involving poor Harambe. Where do your values conflict, and how will you prioritize them?

I’ve written this post from the point of view of institutional leaders. But it applies to us as individuals as well. Each of us has our own personal beliefs and values. How do you articulate them? How do you rank them? What do you do when they conflict? You should have some idea in advance, so that you do not dither when time is not on your side.

What would you add regarding the importance of being prepared for a crisis?

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Time Is on Your Side (Except When It Isn’t)

decisionsThe wisest boss I ever had used to say, “Time is on your side.” No matter what the issue, he seemed to indicate, there was no reason to rush into deciding what to do.

I worked as a Human Resources Director in the division he managed. He had had a previous assignment in Human Resources, and he was very familiar with the personnel issues we handled. He was a good coach and mentor.

Many of the situations we worked on together involved deciding whether to fire an employee or not. In most of those situations, his advice to act deliberately was spot on. As time passed after the situation came to light, more information became available, tempers cooled, and the right course of action became clear. Even when there were differing opinions, the passage of a few days often revealed a path that could achieve a consensus.

  • Sometimes management reached a consensus to discipline the employee short of termination, when hotter heads might have pushed for discharge.
  • Sometimes the employee left of his or her own accord, seeing the handwriting on the wall. Then no decision was necessary.
  • Sometimes we agreed not to fire the individual, who then either shaped up and was salvaged or screwed up again and was fired with a stronger case.
  • Sometimes the termination provoked a lawsuit, but our cool deliberation made the situation more defensible in court.

I learned a lot from that boss—about taking the time to make the best decision possible. He was usually right.

Except when he wasn’t.

On some occasions, time is not on your side—a decision has to be made quickly. The trick to being a good manager and leader is knowing when you can delay to obtain better information and when you must make a call immediately.

Situations where time is not on your side typically involve potential death or injury, or significant property damage or damage to reputation that cannot be undone.

But even on these occasions, if you can take a few moments to consider your options, you are more likely to make a good decision.

Another helpful tool when forced into crisis mode is to make an incremental decision. Can you break the problem up into pieces and deal only with the most pressing issue for the moment?

Only experience will help you determine when you can wait to make a decision—when time is on your side—and when you need to make the call immediately. Just knowing that this is one of the issues you need to consider is a help to strong decision-making. Let time be on your side when you can.

When has time been on your side? When has it not?


Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management

When the Unexpected Strikes

I had planned to post today another “favorite firing”—a tongue-in-cheek, moral-of-the-story piece about what can go wrong in the workplace and how to reduce the likelihood of future such happenings.

But sometimes reality intervenes. The past few days, with the images of shootings across Paris, have been one of those times.

I was immediately drawn back to September 11, 2001, when I was in a Human Resources role, and we were struggling with how to help employees cope with the tragedies of that day. Now, it is the French who must cope, who must struggle to make sense of the senseless.

It’s important to have a crisis management plan in place. But no plan can foresee everything. Often, all we can do is listen to each other and empathize.

The moral of the story is to be grateful for what you have and who you love. In the moment.

paris eiffel flag

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April is Workplace Violence Awareness Month—How To Address Potential Violence in Your Workplace

Image from the National Safety Council

Image from the National Safety Council

According to the Alliance Against Workplace Violence, April 2015 is the third year for a national observance of Workplace Violence Awareness Month. And April 28 is Workers Memorial Day, in remembrance of workers who have died at work.

I’ve addressed workplace violence before on this blog (for example, here and here), but the return of Workplace Violence Awareness Month is a good occasion to mention it again.

Workplace violence can result from actions of strangers, customers, employees, and relatives of employees. The best defense against workplace violence is awareness of the possible sources of conflict. Any strong workplace violence avoidance program should consider all these sources of violence.


1.  Recognizing Employees Who Might Become Violent

Obviously, businesses have the most familiarity with their employees. According to Exigo Business Solutions, here are seven behaviors to watch for in employees that can be potential warning signs of workplace violence.

  • A history of violence
  • Negative reactions to poor performance reviews
  • Drug or alcohol dependencies, which can lead to paranoia or aggressive behavior
  • Romantic obsessions which may lead to inappropriate behavior such as harassment or stalking
  • Requiring repeated instruction, repetition of errors and other concentration problems, which can indicate a troubled employee
  • Depression, which may lead to emotional or aggressive outbursts. Signs of depression can include a slowed work pace, blank facial expressions, inappropriate guilt/shame, etc.
  • Any verbal threats or other activity that is seen as ‘out of character’ for a co-worker

Note that some of these indicators are vague or difficult to determine. The best managers are familiar with their employees and notice when an employee’s behavior changes. They have a good relationship with their staffs, and employees in their organizations seek them out when there are conflicts or problems in the workplace.


2.  Developing an Effective Workplace Violence Prevention Program

An effective workplace violence prevention program should include

  • An assessment of the specific risks of violence at your particular workplace and an evaluation of the controls and policies already in place
  • Measures to ensure the physical security of offices and facilities, such as installing alarm systems, protective barriers, and routes for escape if danger occurs
  • Personal protective equipment, if needed, including personal-alarm systems and mechanisms for contacting security or law enforcement
  • A plan of action for responding to acts of workplace violence
  • Services to treat traumatized employees involved in an incident of workplace violence
  • Workplace-violence awareness training for employees.

See 6 Tips for Creating an Effective Workplace-Violence Prevention Program, by Tiffany Robertson, September 3, 2014, on WeComply.com (a Thomson Reuters compliance blog).

Training should cover the warning signs of a potential violent act, how to report any concerns and what to do if violence does occur. Training should cover employee’s responsibility not only for their own safety, but also for that of their coworkers, customers, and any members of the public who enter the workplace.

Workplace violence prevention is a crucial part of any crisis management program. Involve your HR and your risk management personnel in advance.

Don’t wait for the crisis to occur.

For more information on avoiding workplace violence, see:

OSHA website page on Workplace Violence

What Are You Doing for Workplace Violence Awareness Month?, by Erin Harris, April 23, 2014, Crisis Prevention Institute

Behavior Management Strategies, Crisis Prevention Institute

Spotlight on Workplace Violence Prevention and Awareness in April, WeComply.com (a Thomson Reuters compliance blog)


If you have experienced a threat of workplace violence, what was the most important lesson you learned?

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Crisis Management: Lessons from Ebola for All Employers

ebolaUntil a few days ago, I didn’t think the Ebola crisis was likely to have much impact on the American workforce. I still don’t think that most U.S. employers will have to deal with Ebola exposure on their premises. But as I listen to the news, I have come to believe that there are lessons that all employers can learn from what has happened since the first Ebola patient was identified in Dallas.

First, let me emphasize that employers in the healthcare field do need to prepare immediately for the possibility of their employees being exposed to Ebola. They need a plan to implement at a moment’s notice. I am not experienced in dealing with infectious diseases, so I won’t presume to tell healthcare managers how to address the risks to their employees.

Second, many workplaces have had to deal with health scares in the recent past, from the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to the 2009 swine flu (H1-N1) pandemic. Even if Ebola does not spread, other health issues will impact employers in the future. We all need to be prepared.

pulsenet-team-300pxFor the general employer population, here are some questions we should be asking:

On Health Scares:

1. What should we do if employees report exposure to Ebola or another infectious disease? Do we quarantine them? Will we pay them while they cannot work? What monetary and non-monetary support will we provide them and their families or help them obtain from other community resources?

2. Will we change our travel requirements for employees in response to health concerns? If so, how will we get necessary work and communications done with less travel?

3. How will we address our employees’ fears?

4. What has worked and not worked in the responses from the Centers for Disease Control, from the Dallas hospital where Ebola was first found in the U.S., and from the White House? How will we prepare to do better if we are faced with impact from a pandemic in our workplace?

5. Do we know who the local authorities are dealing with health disasters in our area? How do we build channels of communication now?

On Non-Health Crises:

6. If our next disaster is not Ebola (and it probably won’t be Ebola), what is the most likely risk to my company’s employees? How are we working to reduce that risk?

7. If something deadly happens in our workplace, how will we communicate? What audiences will we need to talk to, and what messages does each audience need to hear? Who will be our spokesperson?

It is the responsibility of leaders in every organization to reduce the number of “unknown unknowns.” Only by asking questions such as these, can you be prepared. You may not know what will cause a crisis in your organization, but something will. “How might we handle that?” is a far better thing for leaders to say than “That will never happen here.”

For other posts on crisis management, click here and here.

What is your organization doing to reduce its risks? What are you doing?

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Crisis Management – Before, During, and After the Crisis

I participated in an American Bar Association webinar on responding to disasters on April 15, 2013. The webinar ended at 2:30pm Eastern time – just 20 minutes before the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

I’ve written about crisis management before (see here on workplace violence and here on crisis communications). The events in Boston on the afternoon of April 15 and in the days that followed reinforced the need for crisis management – before, during and after the crisis.

TornadoAs the speakers at the ABA webinar emphasized, improbable events are becoming the norm. Smithsonian Magazine reports that nearly every American has had to deal with a weather-related disaster in the last few years. The same is true for businesses.

Whether it is a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or tornadoes in the Midwest, or a criminal or terrorist rampage like Sandy Hook Elementary School or bombs at the Boston Marathon, every business and every government entity needs to be prepared to respond to a disaster.

1.      Before the Crisis

The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. – John Kennedy

Before the crisis, businesses should anticipate as many potential losses as possible. Some occurrences are semi-predictable, such as floods and hurricanes, fires and electrical outages. Beyond those, all a business may be able to do is to have a comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery plan.

Since 9/11, much has been written about how to recover when a business location has been completely disrupted. Do you have all critical systems and data backed up? Do your employees know how to find out if your business is operating, or what they should do if you are unable to open for business? Do you have adequate insurance to protect against sudden losses? Do you know what your insurance policies cover and what they do not?

Now is the time to address answer these questions, not after disaster strikes.

2.      During the Crisis

Public calamity is a mighty leveler. – Edmund Burke

Since the specifics of any crisis are not predictable, you should discuss with all employees a clear set of priorities for decision-making during a disaster. For example, in a customer service business, the priorities might be (1) to protect the lives and health of customers, (2) to protect the lives and health of employees, (3) to protect property only after people are safe.

Cooperation with government authorities should also be part of your priorities for employees. And every employee should know both how to evacuate the premises and how to shelter in place (or where to go, if your premises are not safe for sheltering in place).

Perhaps all you say is, “safety first,” which everyone should be able to remember, even in a crisis. When people are safe, then do what you can to minimize business loss.

Do not hold employees accountable for following detailed procedures or rigid standards. It will be difficult during a crisis to remember more than a few basic principles, and even then, different people will react differently, depending on whether the fight or flight instinct kicks in. Be forgiving.

But after the event, recognize those heroes who perform as expected – or who rise above expectations, as so many did in Boston.

3.      After the Crisis

When any calamity has been suffered, the first thing to be remembered is how much has been escaped. – Samuel Johnson

Young Man with His Hand on His ForeheadThe bulk of crisis management work necessarily happens after the crisis. At that point, businesses need to approach the situation as they would any operational problem: Assess where you are and where you need to be to recover, determine your options in obtaining the resources you need, decide on a course of action, and continually re-evaluate your plan.

And throughout it all, communicate, communicate, communicate with all your stakeholders –employees, customers, shareholders, insurers, the media, government authorities, and anyone else with an interest in your recovery.

How will you minimize operational disruption? How can you best return to your pre-crisis status? Can you even improve on where you were before the crisis? What resources are available to help you recoup the losses incurred during the disaster, whether from insurance proceeds or the government or other third-parties?

Often, recovery from a crisis will take months or even years. Rarely will it go smoothly. Anticipate as many problems and you can, and stay flexible.

What has your business done to prepare for potential disasters?

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Preparing for Workplace Violence

Kindergarten Students Learning to Tell TimeThe violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday shocked the nation. The deaths of so many children horrified us all.

We have seen schools, shopping centers, movie theatres, political rallies, and many other locations all become sites of mass shootings. What all these locations have in common – beyond being places where people congregate – is that they are also places where people work. Almost by definition, there are workers wherever people gather, workers who serve the gatherers.

And so, those of us who are responsible for the safety of our employees and customers must assess our readiness to cope with potential violence in our workplace.

Let’s take a moment from our year-end activities and holiday celebrations to consider what happened  at Sandy Hook Elementary and apply the learnings to our own work sites.

What strikes me the most as I read the newspapers is how much went right after the gunman entered the school. Consider:

  • Teachers and administrators immediately confronted the gunman after he apparently shot his way into the building.
  • A custodian ran through the building giving warnings, and someone turned on the public address system to broadcast more warnings.
  • Trained teachers in each room moved rapidly to protect the children (both teachers and students knew what to do in a lockdown).
  • Many administrators, teachers, and even children demonstrated great courage.
  • The authorities were promptly notified and arrived on the scene quickly.
  • Local authorities took control of evacuating people and knew where to send them (the local fire station).
  • Emergency health workers mobilized to the hospitals (though it tragically became apparent that their expertise would not be needed).

In fact, almost everything went right after the shootings took place.  Nevertheless, 27 people died at the school. What more could have been done to prepare for this calamity?

Managers in Human Resources, Security and other departments responsible for workplace safety cannot do much about the mental health and gun control issues in our society as a whole. But we can work on preparedness within our walls.

The crisis management team at my company went through a planning exercise several years back that was eerily similar to the events of Sandy Hook. In our fictitious scenario, a gunman entered through the main door of our building, shot people in a nearby conference room, and proceeded down an open hallway. It didn’t take us long in working through the scenario to realize that we could not control such a situation and that our crisis management plan needed work.

Does your organization have a workplace violence and crisis management process in place? You can never predict the specifics of what might happen, but preparation can minimize injuries and death if your worst fears ever become real.


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