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How Can Organisations Improve Their Agility in Crisis Management?

December 27, 2023

HR Departments have a wide range of responsibilities and accountabilities as they are critical to the organisation’s overall success.

There will be occasions when a crisis occurs, and members of the team need to know how to respond to it with minimal inconvenience and damage. The perfect example of this is the way that the COVID-19 pandemic was dealt with to ensure the safety of employees, adherence to national legislation, and keeping the organisation up and running. A key lesson from this unprecedented event was that some departments and teams may be less agile than others. It would seem sensible to simulate potential organisational issues so that employees can practice their responses.

Examples of a crisis might be:

  • Health and safety emergency
  • The reputation of the organisation has been brought into disrepute
  • Illness or injury of an employee
  • Legal proceedings are instigated
  • Loss of IT systems 

The first step is to gather all relevant information that is available to understand what has taken place. This may involve accounts from managers, employees, or external agencies as the levels of crisis can be diverse. Depending on the scale and impact of the issue, there may be other evidence available such as CCTV footage. 

All actions should be captured in a log, so there is an audit trail of what occurred and the response. For this to be a useful document it needs to contain full information – including identification of any errors in the required actions which were subsequently dealt with. If the crisis is not resolved within a short period, this action log becomes crucial as there will need handovers. The more detailed they are, the more helpful they will be. Allocation of tasks to specific individuals is critical so that their progress can be reviewed and measured and to ensure that there is a match between task and expertise.

In a significantly sized crisis, employees will want to be reassured by seeing the organisation’s senior team visibly leading and role-modeling good behaviours. This includes demonstrating resilience and ensuring that policies and procedures are being adhered to. Crises are challenging for everyone involved and may significantly impact some colleagues. It is, therefore, good practice to ensure that line managers check in on their team members to identify any concerns. 

Communication is key to making sure that the relevant stakeholders are aware of what has taken place and the proposed actions to deal with it. This would likely be differentiated as different groups have different needs. Management would expect to have access to all information, as opposed to a team or individual level, where it wouldn’t be appropriate to share all of the information. It can be challenging to strike the right balance between transparency of data sharing while ensuring the privacy of individuals and the organisation’s reputation. The crisis management policy should include details on the mode of communication as well as the frequency of sharing the information.

Senior managers should ensure that there are contingency plans in place if the usual communication channels are inaccessible. For example, there may be an emergency WhatsApp group that would be used if email or Microsoft Teams were not available. On occasion, it may be necessary to share information and updates with wider stakeholders, which may be internal or external. It would be useful to take specialist advice to ensure no data protection breaches or other related policies. Once there is agreement on what information can be shared, there needs to be an agreed approach to how and by whom the updates should take place.

Wherever possible, evidence-based decisions should be made. However, this may not be possible when there is an urgent need for actions to take place. It would be good practice for key decisions to be made by more than one person, but there may be pragmatic issues that make this difficult. There will certainly be occasions when there is no internal expertise that can help to address the issue. This may necessitate the use of external experts to advise on what should be done and how. 

If the crisis has been around a particularly difficult or upsetting issue, the HR team should consider whether support should be offered to employees. Employees may already have access to counseling and other psychological experts through their medical insurance. There could be an occasion when employees are ill or injured, which requires different medical support, and all employees should be encouraged to seek medical care.

Depending on the nature of the crisis, it may be necessary to liaise with the government or other agencies to share information and/or respond to their requests for information. The ability to be able to discuss an internal issue with external agencies should be covered in the relevant HR policies, for example in discipline and grievance. The organisation should also identify different levels of responsibility, for example, to determine who can make decisions and approve data sharing. This may be a more complex issue when an organisation operates across different geographical boundaries.

After the crisis has been resolved, it is important to reflect on what happened and what the responses were. This may involve the identification of good practice, as well as areas of weakness, but the key purpose is to be able to articulate what might be done differently next time. When reflecting upon what took place, it may have become evident that there are specific areas where employees would require some additional learning. This may be related to the activity (e.g., policy development) or the actual crisis management process. The HR team should ensure that these learning needs are addressed. 

Author
Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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