June 26, 2014

Taking the Lead: In Emergencies the Little Things Aren’t So Little

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2014 | The Annual Big Ideas IssueTHERE IS ALWAYS potential for a disaster. It may be a disaster in your city. It may be a disaster that is personal to one of your employees. How you react when a disaster strikes tells your employees a lot about you and your firm.

Earlier this year, we had two unusual ice and snow events in my hometown. How the public interpreted the reaction of government leaders to each event was significantly different. During the first event, drivers were stranded in their cars and children in their schools. I am not judging who was to blame for these conditions, but public opinion turned decidedly against the civic leaders. Two weeks later, the city experienced another ice and snow storm yet few problems materialized. The people were silent. They didn’t compliment, but they didn’t criticize.

Just as the public expects certain things from the government during a snowstorm, your employees expect certain things from your firm. When you react poorly, your employees begin thinking of better places to work. When you react appropriately, your employees are neutral. When you react in a way they perceive is above and beyond, your firm becomes the talk of the town.

In a citywide emergency, think about what your employees are enduring. Are they and their families all safe? Are any employees trapped in the office because they cannot get home? Do they have electricity? Are they worried about their salaries? Put yourself in their position before you decide how to proceed.

EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEMS

Be sure you have a reliable emergency notification system. We used to have a policy that the office would be closed whenever the county courthouse was closed. It seemed simple enough, but for some reason there was always confusion about whether the office would be open. We found that emergency notification systems were not expensive and offered some great features. Our system sends email and text messages to employees as well as voice messages. We call home, mobile and office phones, not just one of them. It saves time and virtually guarantees you will reach every employee.

During our ice and snow storm, we discovered our emergency notification system could receive messages back from our employees. We asked employees to press #1 if they were home and safe; #2 if they were not home, but safe; and #3 if they were not yet safe. We were able to contact those who self-identified as #3 and helped them to safety. The employees greatly appreciated our concern. They told their friends how much their employer cared about them. This included even those who responded #1 or #2.

BE CLEAR ABOUT EMERGENCY PROCEDURES

Make the decision to close the office as early as is practical. Keep track of school closings. Employees want to know if the office will be open as soon as possible so they can make arrangements for their children or others for whom they are responsible.

Be clear with nonexempt employees about their pay. We made a decision to pay our employees when we close the office for inclement weather. They appreciate it very much and tell us so in every survey. Think about how you much better you would feel if your home or car was destroyed in a hurricane or earthquake but you did not miss a paycheck. When reviewing your firm’s business interruption insurance, ensure that you have coverage to pay your employees following a major disaster if your firm has to close for more than a week. That’s why business owners buy insurance.

We read about “sheltering in place.” In a storm, many of your employees may be stuck in the office. Access to food is important. We stock snacks and drinks for our employees anyway, although that’s probably not enough for sheltering in place. My goal is to find some ready-to-eat food that can be used in an emergency and donated when it becomes close to expiration if it is not used.

PERSONAL DISASTERS

When the disaster is personal to one or a few employees, everyone will want to help. You should lead the effort. If possible, visit with the employee personally, such as attending a funeral for a spouse or child. Be sure the firm sends food or flowers, consistent with the employee’s wishes. If the employee has an extended illness, call periodically to express concern. Be sure not to ask too many personal questions, but offer empathy and reasonable assistance. Before you call, know the answers to questions about pay and benefits or know whom the employee can contact for that information.

When the employee returns to work, remember to inquire about how things are going. If you have an employee assistance hotline or your bar association has one that is open to firm employees, be sure that information is accessible. Personal problems are sensitive topics, and your leadership style, along with the law, determines whether you personally make referrals. The safest practice is to frequently remind all employees about these resources. Those who need it will find help.

We all know that we don’t kick a person who is down. We know to help anyone who is in need. When your employees suffer a stressful event, they will never forget that your firm went a little further, that you cared and tried to make a tough time a little easier. You will feel great about how your firm handled the situation, and the whole town will know, too.