You might not think HR management has much of a role during a flood or after a cyclone, but you’d be wrong. Here we explore what happens when HR meets emergency management.
In 1999, Craig Hynes was a member of the incident management team from Western Australia’s Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) operations when Cyclone Vance hit Exmouth, on WA’s mid-north coast.
The severe category 5 cyclone destroyed 100 homes and damaged many more, displacing more than 2,000 residents.
One of the first priorities for Hynes’ team was to set up a communication strategy.
“The town was devastated,” he remembers. “So we reinstated the local radio station and put out regular bulletins to community members. We called town meetings and we set up one-stop shops for assistance. Those sorts of things can be incorporated into modern organisations too.”
Don’t try to manage the bad news by keeping everything to yourself, says Hynes. “Make sure all the different groups – your employees, your neighbours, your community, your executive and families – all get a message to say what’s going on.”
Hynes has prepared for and faced multiple cyclones and bushfires every year in his 20-plus years in emergency services, as the COO of FESA, and now at Perth-based crisis and emergency management (EM) organisation Executive Risk Solutions.
“During an emergency you need to get everyone together and set your objectives,” he says. “There’s an acronym well used in EM for setting priorities and developing objectives called PEARL: people, environment, asset, reputation and livelihood.The first person who should have a say is the head of HR, who will ensure that people are the priority.”
All hands on
When we think of disasters, we often think about the event, then the clean-up. But that’s only half the story.
“Some people think EM is having fire extinguishers and an emergency response team, but you need an all-hands approach that includes four key stages: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.”
The first two stages take the most time, says Hynes.
“We know we have those risks every year. While it’s hard to mitigate a cyclone, you can reduce bushfire risk around a town, and for cyclones and fires you can ensure construction levels and safety systems are commensurate with the risks they pose. Then you look at filling the gaps.”
Although an emergency isn’t a typical day in the office for most HR professionals (who are more used to putting out metaphorical fires), those who skilfully connect the right people can help organisations handle emergencies with more agility.
Identifying the gaps in an organisation’s EM capabilities draws on multiple facets of an HR manager’s strategic skillset, say Marco De Sisto and Timothy Bartram, professors at RMIT’s School of Management who co-authored a 2018 report titled Emergency Management and HRM in Local Governments, which was published in AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources.
HR managers are already involved in strategic recruitment, training (including workplace health and safety) and developing policies and procedures, but another important HR contribution to EM is sometimes overlooked.
“One agency can’t manage the emergency in isolation,” says De Sisto. “They need to work together, using the specialised skills of each group. You need a strong network, a strong interagency collaboration.”
Because if people in teams don’t connect and work well with each other day to day, it would be naive to hope a worst-case scenario would bring out their best.
If you can keep your head in a crisis while everyone around you loses theirs, you’re doing well. This is just one of the many expected traits of leaders in an EM situation. “The role of HRM in forging better collaboration is easier said than done,” says Bartram.
“When you’re dealing with people who are passionate about their work and there’s life and death, it is inevitable that you’re going to get conflict and difference of opinion.”
Back in Hynes’ early firefighting days, he encountered a few leaders who thought they had to shout the loudest and be dominant. Drill sergeants might behave like that, but in the middle of a crisis, leaders need to be more mindful of everyone’s mental wellbeing.
“You can’t be removed from the team, just directing, running them into the ground, because you expect everybody wearing a Superman costume underneath. You have to be on the ground leading with empathy.
“In the emergencies I’ve worked on, I could sense the stress and anxiety of some people, and others pick that up.
“It’s really important that you’ve spent time developing your team beforehand, so you know what they’re capable of, who works well together and when they need a break. Just because you’re the CEO or COO, that doesn’t mean you’re the best person to run an emergency,” says Hynes.
Some people emerge as leaders because they’re the best at what they do, says Bartram. A key element of emergency preparedness and response is to ensure managers have skills in networking and ethical leadership. HRM plays a big role here.
“We need to see a stronger focus on ethical leadership and sustainable HRM practices, not just in EM, but more broadly. It’s one of the fundamental issues in recruitment,” says Bartram pointing to recent troubles in various sectors such as banking and aged care.
Were these crises preventable? Possibly. If the organisations actually practiced well-being focused HRM, rather than being preoccupied with profit and performance when directing their personnel. “You can improve performance by recruiting leaders who emphasise employee welfare,” he says. “They need to model ethical behaviour at all times: respecting each other’s roles, understanding where others are coming from and building trust.”
Trust is developed through regular practice, says De Sisto, noting that HR teams are often called on to coordinate fire drills as part of WHS, including counting heads and measuring evacuation times. But during an emergency, their people skills come to the fore, including:
- Scheduling the right combination of skilled people for each shift.
- Finding volunteers to support them.
- Improving communication to staff, family and community.
- Sorting out demarcation issues across departments and external agencies.
“We’ve seen the response stage left to [Victoria’s] Country Fire Authority and other emergency agencies, but it should be a unified effort,” says De Sisto.
Practicing drills to test responsiveness and responsibilities under pressure will also reveal whether or not everyone buys into the emergency plan.
“In HR, if you encounter mediocre behaviour in the office, you put them on a performance plan. But if you’re accepting mediocre behaviour in your emergency drills, you’ll accept that in an emergency,” says Hynes.
“Don’t be the old captain of the Titanic. Just because your industry’s been immune from loss of life, controversy or bad news, don’t believe those things won’t happen. Make sure you’re still training and getting skilled people to deal with every situation, because complacency is the enemy in emergency management.”
He’s seen HR managers and other leaders struggle when doing a drill for the first time because they weren’t aware how much hard work was involved. He’s also heard excuses from people at every level about why their ‘real’ work is more important than practicing a drill.
He suggests switching up drills, so everyone is kept on their toes and understands their role. For example, HR teams need to collaborate with communications teams to provide updates for families and communities, and deal with emotional callers; C-level execs and direct reports need to know how to handle a hostage situation; and front-line people need to understand how to respond in a siege.
“A crisis isn’t an everyday occurrence,” says Hynes. “Practicing how you’ll respond will save you time, money and risk when you really need it, and your people will be more likely to be resilient in the face of those events.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
Maintaining cool under pressure is an absolute necessity during a crisis. Train your team with Ignition Training’s short course ‘Building Resilience’.