Crisis control: how HR departments can coordinate employees in an emergency


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Many companies were affected by the events of the Arab Spring, the extreme flooding in Pakistan, the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, flooding in Brisbane, hurricane Irene in the US, and the multitude of other significant political and environmental events that occurred in 2011.

During these events, companies were forced to evaluate their security processes and their means of communication with employees.

For many companies these incidents highlighted that current processes for accounting for staff during a crisis were slow and inefficient.

In particular, these dramatic events have caused an HR challenge: how do HR departments ensure they account for their employees, communicate with them and coordinate a coherent and comprehensive response for those in need of help?

Quickly establishing the location and status of all employees is the first stage towards organising a response to a critical incident such as the Fukushima earthquake. Once employees are accounted for, the next stage is to provide a mechanism for communicating with those affected and co-ordinating any further actions. These stages will allow an HR department to prioritise efforts and better coordinate the incident response.

When we ask HR departments how they manage employee location we are often told: 'We use a system of spreadsheets and emergency phone numbers'. When speaking with larger companies or those with more experience in trying to account for employees, the answer changes to: 'Spreadsheets, flight management systems and satellite phones'. But, flight management systems are limited to a small group of travelling employees; they do not offer information on employees already within a country, or give a comprehensive overview of a disparate global workforce. They provide information on who has flown into a particular city, but what about where the employees travelled to after leaving the airport?

Spreadsheets are often not updated regularly or accurately enough. A real example of this is a company trying to account for staff locations in the Middle East finding the only data available to them was PO box numbers. As for satellite phones and GSM networks, these can be ineffective in a large-scale emergency. GSM networks can be taken down by the authorities and both GSM and satellite communications can struggle during emergencies because the voice channels quickly become overloaded. The use of short burst data (SBD), such as text messages, is a more reliable means of communicating as the messages are highly likely to get through.

Satellite phones are costly to provide to employees, and are usually only issued to a select few. Companies can reach some employees using satellite phones, but will not have a means of communicating with all of their employees or have an overview of everyone's safety. Whilst remaining a useful tool, satellite phones are not a solution for large, disparate workforces.

The experience of one multinational company illustrates some of the problems. When protesters in Manama sparked the Bahrain uprising in February 2011, company management believed that up to 100 employees might have been in Bahrain at that time. Employee management processes, which relied on satellite phones, email and GSM phones, failed to provide a coherent overview of the situation. Ultimately, it took three days to establish that only ten personnel were in the country at the time. Naturally, this was deemed unacceptable by senior management who began looking for more comprehensive processes to deal with future emergency situations.

Tools now exist that can improve emergency response to the risks posed to employees. For example, employees can be provided with tracking devices that will chart their location and safety status and send messages - short burst data (SBD). If employees are provided with a suitable device, in an emergency they can activate the tracking function which will allow their organisation to know their location. They can also alert their company if they are in need of assistance by pushing a panic button.

The newest solutions available to HR teams are employee location management systems. These are cloud-based platforms which an employee can log onto via a phone or computer to update their status. This system provides a simple but effective way for HR departments to quickly account for personnel and focus efforts. Not only does this allow the employer to meet duty of care requirements, but it also allows them to provide information to employees' families while organising an appropriate response.

Unlike a travel management system an employee location management system is applicable to everyone in a disparate workforce. It provides a tangible demonstration of process and commitment to managing employee safety.

Only half of UK employers require their employees to log their whereabouts when conducting business remotely. The survey also illustrated that while almost a third of employees travel for business at least every three months, a mere 15% are 'very confident' in their employer's ability to deal with an emergency. This needs to serve as a wakeup call to any company that expects its employees to conduct business on its behalf. Simple, affordable technological solutions now exist.

Tim Grant (pictured), CEO, Track24


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