As areas of the U.S. reach peak hurricane season, employers may want to consider whether they're prepared for a worst-case scenario. The effects of a hurricane can be catastrophic in both the immediate and long term; Puerto Rico is still rebuilding nearly a year after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
And while the path and severity of any given hurricane is difficult to predict until the threat is imminent, employers can and should take a number of steps to prepare ahead of time. All experts HR Dive spoke to agreed: The safety and well-being of employees and their loved ones is paramount.
Look at the risks from all angles
If you are at risk for a hurricane, consider the following, independent safety consultant Randy DeVaul told HR Dive via email:
- Physical hazards to employees, facilities, property, environment.
- Financial hazards (prolonged shutdown, product risks, customer risks).
- Emotional/mental hazards to employees during and after the event.
- Community hazards (infrastructure effects, debris hazards).
- Business considerations (pay, time off, does your business close or stay open during and after the storm).
- Logistics considerations (loss of raw materials delivery, loss of finished goods shipments to customers, storage of materials/products, preparing equipment for shutdown and restart).
- Technology considerations (safety and continuity of essential databases/records/servers/processes).
- Supplier/materials considerations.
"Include a cross-functional team from leadership, HR, maintenance, safety, production, engineering, planning, and security to ensure all needs are identified and addressed," said DeVaul.
He also advised establishing a timeline to address these needs, as they cannot all be dealt with simultaneously: "For example, establishing transportation requirements to move product or obtain additional materials ahead of the storm may need a week prior to the storm's anticipated arrival, whereas the plan to close the facility or schedule employees may require waiting until a day or two of the storm's arrival to track its direction."
DeVaul recommended that local managers be tasked with following the hurricane plan since generally there are enough days of notice to address personal needs, employee needs, and the business plan needs simultaneously.
Build in elasticity
Colleen Hutchings, vice president, operations and client services at ReedGroup, concurred with DeVaul on the lead time for hurricanes. Because they are seasonal and come with at least a few days' notice, she said, they are often easier to manage than things like HVAC problems and water outages — not to mention serious and immediate emergencies like an active shooter in the workplace.
But last year, two of ReedGroup's locations — Shenandoah, Texas, and Orlando, Florida — were hit in quick succession by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. This was "very unusual," noted Hutchings. "The impact of that operationally is incredibly difficult to navigate as an organization."
Hutchings, who is based in the Denver, Colorado, area, said she would physically fly in, because employees in those areas were personally affected. "Your first priority is always your people," she said.
In addition to having a plan in place, Hutchings said, it's a best practice to "exercise the plan to as many levels as you possibly can. This way the onus is not just on the risk management team. At the time of the event, it is mission-critical that people are familiar with the plan and how it is going to be executed."
Additionally, Hutchings advises creating "as much elasticity in your operations as possible." She keeps track of who is office-based, who works virtually, who could work virtually on short notice and who can be moved. "Oftentimes, employees will actually volunteer to go to a location, if necessary — we physically move, house, and feed them," she said.
In the aftermath of an event, Hutchings recommends streamlining processes for things like leave paperwork and approvals, when possible, as well as extending employee deadlines.
Offer comprehensive support and encourage individual resilience
Emergency preparedness for offices and operations is crucial, noted Debra Zoppy, assistant vice president of operational risk at Guardian Life Insurance of America (ReedGroup's parent company), but so is "individual resiliency."
Guardian provides employees with a variety of resources — including an internal social media site, intranet, external emergency website, and hotline numbers — so that they can access emergency preparedness information and alerts in as many different ways as possible.
In advance of a storm, Guardian triggers local managers to reach out to their employee teams and make sure staff are supported personally and appropriately pre-positioned. “Our priority is always, first and foremost, the safety of our employees and their families … we're also doing a review of what our current workload is, what our business priorities are."
As needed, Guardian obtains hotel rooms for staff members and their families (including pets), as well as rental cars. "If we have everyone safe," Zoppy said, "that provides peace of mind [and] also facilitates the continuation of business operations from a safe location."
Guardian also has a fund set aside to assist employees in crisis — such as one ReedGroup employee in Florida whose roof collapsed during Hurricane Irma — before their insurance kicked in.
"What we have found is that with our reach-out to our employees, not only does it help improve morale, it gives them comfort and improves loyalty and makes them feel they are part of the Guardian family," Zoppy said. "Also, when they come back to work, they are coming back with a peace of mind that they do not have to worry that things at home are not under control."
What about the customer experience?
"We typically don't generally have gaps in maintaining the customer relationship because staff are pre-positioned and we are able to maintain operations," said Zoppy. "The customer doesn't necessarily feel the impact. And we do minimize the impact when we can." This could mean, for example, having the call center take a customer's information and call back later if an issue can't be immediately resolved.
Guardian also uses leverages third-party recovery service providers. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy displaced Guardian from its primary worksite for a year. As a result, the company developed what is now known as "Guardian on the Go," which allows employees to work remotely. "That was a lesson learned from Hurricane Sandy, and now it is part of our normal production operation," Zoppy said.
An investment rather than an expense
If your company is not directly hit by a hurricane, you may be able to support your local community by "providing bottled water; providing volunteers to assist in distributing meals, food, and water; or donating produced goods," DeVaul said. "These actions demonstrate the company's commitment to the community in which it is located and communicates a strong ethic of caring for its employees and the people around it."
"We treat our employees as if they are part of our family," said Zoppy. "It's not words; our actions speak to that. Employees are the reason [companies] are able to run their business." If more companies realized that, Zoppy said, "they would be more successful and have happier employees."