Whether it's a shooting in the workplace, a toxic chemical spill, industrial accident or natural disaster, the majority of employers are woefully unprepared to deal with a workplace crisis, says long-time crisis management expert Jonathan Bernstein.

"Ninety-five percent of employers are either completely unprepared or dramatically underprepared for crises," says Bernstein, author of "Manager's Guide to Crisis Management" and president of Bernstein Crisis Management.

However, recent shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and a movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., as well as natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, may have employers considering how they would handle similar situations.

"There should be a plan of action prior to an event," says Dr. Ewa Antonowicz, clinical director of ComPsych, an employee assistance program provider. "There needs to be a policy everybody knows how to follow."

Creating a plan

Bernstein says a crisis management plan should have two components: prevention and response. "The closest analogy I've found is the difference between fire prevention and firefighting," he says. "Firefighting is the type of crisis management that makes the news, but the people who save organizations and people the most money, by far, are the fire inspectors."

Developing a crisis prevention and response plan should start with what Bernstein calls a vulnerability audit. "Look objectively at all the things within the entire organization that might make it more vulnerable to a crisis in general or to a specific crisis," he says. "For example, there's a significant difference between a single-location business and a multiple-location business."

Look for red flags in every functional area because a crisis can occur anywhere, notes Bernstein.

A vulnerability audit could, for example, uncover that a website is unable to handle a sudden surge in traffic that typically accompanies a crisis.

"That ratchets up the level of the crisis right there because if the site isn't available, you all of a sudden have a lot of unhappy stakeholders," says Bernstein.

Once a vulnerability audit is done, employers have a solid foundation for creating both an operational response plan and a crisis communications plan. These two plans should work in tandem, although ideally the plans should each be managed by different people.

"If you're busy trying to assess whether the building damaged by the tornado will be ready for occupancy again in the next 30 days, for example, you can't also be dealing with the media," Bernstein says, adding he often finds multiple crisis management plans created by different silos within the organization, which can be problematic.

"You've got to be able to break down the silos, and sometimes corporate culture is very hard to break down in that regard," he says, noting that there are no cookie-cutter crisis management plans.

"We spend a lot of time talking to executives to understand how communication flows, what can get in the way, and how we can cut through the clutter to have a much more linear response to crises, because it's critical the crisis response be prompt," he says.

 

Don't let workers 'wing it'

After creating the operational response plan and communications plan, the next step is to train employees to respond according to the plans. This includes media training for spokespeople. Then, organizations should conduct crisis simulations to ensure the appropriate people stay up-to-date.

"Several organizations that were in the World Trade Center on 9/11 had done that, including practicing evacuation and moving operations to a different site, because they had been warned by the previous World Trade Center bombing [in 1993]," says Bernstein. "Without drills, many of the skills and processes in crisis plans are not intuitive to plan participants."

Bernstein stresses the importance of training every single employee about what to do. "Every single employee is a PR rep and a crisis manager for the organization, whether you want them to be or not," he says. "Therefore, everyone needs to be told what to do and what not to do. Because if you don't tell them, they're going to wing it."

 

Tips for conducting CISM debriefings

The goal of critical incident stress management is to normalize employee reactions and help them recover and not have longer-term psychological effects. CISM lets employees know what to expect - sleep problems, trouble concentrating, flashbacks, nervousness - and that what they are experiencing is normal. By participating in either group or individual CISM counseling, employees are able to work through the incident and reduce the likelihood of long-term effects.

ComPsych's Dr. Ewa Antonowicz shares five tips for conducting CISM briefings:

1. Schedule employees according to their level of involvement in the event. For example, don't put witnesses in the same session as those who just heard about it, because that can make it more traumatic for nonwitnesses.

2. Group employees by level of seniority. For instance, if a senior VP is in the same room with front-line employees, lower-level workers will be less likely to speak up.

3. Offer individual CISM counseling.

4. Remind employees to continue to use the EAP on an ongoing basis if needed.

5. Conduct follow-up sessions one to two months after the event, then perhaps again at the six-month mark. The more tragic the event, the more follow-up is needed.

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