Business Crisis Management:
Handling a Work-Place Crisis

I have to tell you, this is an article you hope to never have to read or use.  Yet many of us do face true crises at work.  If you are a manager, co-worker, or Human Resources professional, you have probably dealt with one of these situations.  Did you notice that the previous sentence includes all of us?  It does.  Because all of us will, at one time or another, deal with these heartbreaking situations.

The most common work-place crises situations deal with the death of a loved one of an employee, the death of an employee him or her self, the death or serious injury of an employee, and an eminent threat to the work-place itself from terrorists or from some other outside force.  The traumatic impact on your employees will exist in each of these situations.

First, let's consider when an employee sustains a terrible personal loss in his or her life.  I have worked in situations in which an employee has committed suicide, in which a spouse has died, in which the child of an employee has died, and in which an employee has died from work-related causes as well as from what would be called "natural" causes.  I caution you not to underestimate the impact of such events on your work-force.  As a human being, and as a responsible manager, you simply must not turn a blind eye to these catastrophes.

Assume for a moment that the employee has sustained a loss of a loved one in his or her life.  A spouse has been killed in a car accident.  A parent has had a heart attack and died suddenly.  Or, worst of all, a child has died from an illness or accident.  Let's consider first the employee who has lost a loved one.  Be absolutely sure you have communicated to this person that he or she is NOT expected back at work for 2-3 weeks.  I don't care if this person had the worst attendance your site has ever seen.  Grant them 2-3 weeks grace.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it is the "human" thing to do.  It makes sense.  After 2-3 weeks, it actually is in the survivor's best interest to get "back to work" in all areas of life.  Secondly, don't invite a person back into the work-force who just shouldn't be there.  He is tearful.  Co-workers are tip-toeing around him.  All of us have varying skills at dealing with this depth of emotion and grief.  Don't assume that your department is great at it.  They probably aren't.  Third, it actually is in the best interest of your company or department to invite this person back with open arms.  He or she will be ready to contribute and function.  And you need that.

Now let's think about an employee who is himself or herself the patient.  I never cease to be amazed at how different people handle this particular personal burden.  Some declare themselves "invalid" from the first sign of infirmity.  They seem to almost revel in illness as an excuse to procrastinate or under-achieve.  Then there are those who you simply would not know  are ill if you were not privy to that information.  These people go for chemotherapy on their lunch hours!  Please consider honoring both extremes and everyone in between.  The coping mechanisms for this kind of challenge are really very individual.  And no one coping mechanism is "better" than another. 

How do you handle this with your team?  As with any other work-place crisis, you have a number of choices.  First and foremost, you must honor the wishes of the person who is ill or who has an ill family member.  If he or she wants a gag order, then you must honor that request.  However, if this is a beloved, long-service employee, that person's co-workers may be suffering just as a family would.  Make sure you communicate the concern of your department.  Establish a point of contact so the family is not overwhelmed with inquiries.  Set a time for the "official" update each week from the point of contact.  And DO YOUR HOMEWORK.  Each company has its own standards and "rules" for various processes and procedures.  It is more and more common today for benefits issues to be handled centrally.  Be sure you have both a local and regional contact so you know what your responsibilities are in regard to representing your loved one, and so you can most effectively obtain services needed by your loved one and his or her family members.

Now let's talk about the community.  The worst thing you can do is stonewall the local community.  BELIEVE ME, they will have a sense of what is going on.  If you deny the seriousness of an injury or condition, you sabotage any trust your company may have built up in the community.  This is one case where honesty truly is the best policy.

Sometimes, companies are reluctant to say that they don't know the answers.  They believe in an "honesty is the best policy" philosophy, but they don't know all the answers, so they think they have to make up some of the answers.  If you get nothing else out of this article, please hear this: You MUST be honest with the people you are talking to.  Nothing is more obvious than a "spin" job in a crisis.  If you don't know the answer, say you don't know the answer.  If you don't know the extent or the severity of the injuries, please SAY that you don't.  Not only is it the right thing to do, it also happens to be the smart thing to do in a crisis situation.

Information is for educational and informational purposes only and is not be interpreted as financial or legal advice. This does not represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Please consult your financial advisor.