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HR/BENEFITS

Helping Your Employees in a Time of Crisis

When tragedy strikes, looking out for your employees is not only the right thing to do, but the right thing for your business.

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Amy M. lives in Utah, which is pretty far from Boston. Still, the events of Monday's bombing shook her deeply. It "was just a really hard day emotionally for me," she explains. If you were Amy M.'s boss, would you have expected that a tragedy across the continent would affect her so deeply?

Well, you might, if you knew that one of her children's teachers was running in the Boston Marathon, and while uninjured, was between the two bombs. In addition, Amy is a runner herself, having completed a couple of marathons. To add to the sadness, on the same day as the Boston tragedy, a friend of hers was killed in a car accident, leaving behind a pregnant wife and five children.

With that bit of additional information, you could easily see why these things that happened so far away could be emotionally challenging for Amy. And she's not the only one with unseen connections to tragedy. The Boston bombings hit the media and everyone is aware. People are wearing race shirts to show their support to the runners. We are talking about it, writing about it, and worrying about if it could happen again.

But, the reality is, there are tragedies happening every day. Chances are, at something bad will happen to you or one of your employees over the course of your business. Here's how to handle it:

Don't assume you know what others are feeling.  We often like to think we can be empathetic--and we can, to an extent. But, if your normally hard working, trustworthy employee says she just can't concentrate because of some tragic event that didn't affect you at all, assume she's telling the truth.

Be compassionate. Yes, you're in the business of being in business. You need your employees to be working. But, in order to get the best work done, occasionally you have to let something else take priority. And sometimes that means sending someone home early. Giving an extra vacation day. Going to the funeral of someone you've never met, just because it is important to show support to your employee.

Offer real help. What is real help? Well it depends on the situation. When confronted with a national tragedy, donating to a reputable charity, or arranging for blood donation can come to mind. When the tragedy strikes closer to home--a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, a miscarriage--real help isn't quite as easy as writing a check. You may need to shuffle the schedule, donate vacation days, and even hire a temp to help out while your employee deals with her personal life.

Get an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs provide your employees with a toll free number to call--often available 24 hours a day. This number can connect them with counselors or even legal advice (needed surprisingly often in crises). The programs can be surprisingly inexpensive. The advantage is that you don't have to be an expert in helping your employee through a crisis, and if the crisis is personal, your employee doesn't even have to tell you. EAPs generally report back that one of your employees called, but they don't say who nor what the problem was.

Ask what they need. Everyone has different needs. Employees A and B may have the same thing happen to them, but while Employee A needs to take a week off to pull things together, Employee B may only need to take a long lunch so she can go for a walk to clear her head and to leave early on Thursday. This doesn't mean Employee B is a better employee; it just means she's handling this particular crisis in a different way than Employee A.

Comply with all laws. You probably know that when you hit 50 employees you're subject to the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires that you give time off to someone with a medical need or who is acting as a caregiver for a family member. However, many states have lower thresholds and some cities have additional requirements. Find out now what you are required to do by law. But, don't get in the trap of saying, "I only have 45 employees, so I'm not going to give you any time off to deal with your cancer diagnosis!" The law is a minimum guideline, not the example of what a decent human being should do.

Last updated: Apr 17, 2013

SUZANNE LUCAS spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.
@RealEvilHRLady




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