Employers, especially small employers, tend to ask questions like, “What must I do to comply with the law?” It’s the kind of bean-counting inquiry that keeps business chugging along. But that’s not what the guy with the bodega south of 14th Street asked on the morning of 9/11. How to deal with the unimaginable disaster? Inventory, data, stuff – that can all be replaced. People? No.
Before the fear mongering gets completely out of control and we all start to hoard canned goods, let’s look at some of the lessons learned in the wake of recent large-scale disasters. Two things loom large — adequate insurance and a plan. The next lesson is that disaster also has a private face. Be prepared to give some time, patience and resources to that as well.
If your small business is like most, you’re probably under-insured. The first step in disaster planning is to make a list of likely perils. Do you do business in tornado alley or on a flood plain? Talk to your agent about your coverage. One way to take care of your employees is to make sure that they have a job to come to every day.
Then mitigate the obvious risks that you identify. Since you have a legal duty to maintain a safe workplace, this would be a good time to add emergency lighting to that dim stairwell. It might reduce your insurance costs anyway. If you do business in the Northeast, you know you’re likely to lose power at some point in the winter. Would a backup power source pay for itself in terms of productivity not lost? Do you suppose there might be earthquakes in southern California? Do you need to consider the potential for workplace violence?
The Disaster Plan
There are a number of good disaster plan templates available on the internet. One of the simplest, yet most comprehensive, was developed by the Department of Homeland Security. It is essentially a tickler list of things you might have forgotten to think about, including
- who is in charge and how that person may be reached in an emergency – do not underestimate the importance of command and control,
- alternative communication systems if the phones don’t work,
- evacuation plans and the schedule of evacuation drills,
- warning systems, assembly places, shelter locations,
- employee emergency contact information,
- other businesses with whom you expect to cooperate in the event of an emergency, and
- contractors and suppliers to notify because you do want to get back to business.
Having a plan is good. It is only really valuable if you do drills and keep it updated. The exercise is pointless if you don’t practice. Now we are talking about a difficult but necessary behavior change. Schedule updates and walk-throughs at regular intervals, maybe every six months.
Disasters can also be very small scale and personal. A valuable employee who has been traumatized or whose family has been traumatized may bear up like a champion and then crumple unexpectedly three months later when everyone else is getting back into the routine. It’s like time-release trauma. Expect this. That explosive rant is not just bad behavior.
Perhaps the disaster was not a public one like a flood or hurricane. Maybe it was the death of a spouse. It’s a disaster, nonetheless. Do you have flexible work scheduling, or is your FMLA administration up to speed? What does your company’s health insurance policy provide in terms of mental health coverage? Have you considered implementing a confidential Employee Assistance Program? Some of these programs may be quite cost effective, weighed against the talent you might lose. Again, it's time to visit with the insurance agent.
Your employees are among your most important business assets. It's not just personally good and humane to look after them in a disaster. It's good business. Take three steps to do this: review your insurance coverage to make sure that it is adequate, make a disaster plan and practice it.