Coping With Crisis

When asked what got his employees through the 1995 bombing in his city, Oklahoma City jeweler Gary Gordon has a simple answer: Meetings.

In the weeks following the bombing, his store’s employees held powwows every other day—mostly to just talk.

“We always claimed we ran the business like a family, and this was an opportunity to really put that into practice,” Gordon says. “We all shared stories and talked about how we were going to get through this. We let people know it was okay if they needed to take some time off. It was real important for our employees to know that they worked in a store that cared about them.”

Gordon also offered his employees access to professional counseling. But the “group huddles” often functioned as a “mini-therapy” session. “They just seemed to offer a lot of comfort,” Gordon says.

Meetings also played a role in the healing process at Morgan’s Jewelers in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. There, a group of employees suffered a more direct trauma when gunmen held them hostage for 18 hours. The meetings, run by a professional counselor, included everyone who was held hostage. The employees also received raises and access to private counseling.

“After a crisis, you need to release what you are feeling,” says Marshall Vadon, the store’s co-owner and one of the hostages. “It’s almost like a poison that eats inside of you, and you have to get it out.”

One hears much the same thing from Marion Halfacre of Traditional Jewelers in Newport Beach, Calif., whose employees witnessed a shoot-out outside his store. Following the incident, Halfacre offered employees access to counseling—and did a lot of listening himself. “If people wanted to vent, I just let them do it,” he says. “Everyone handles things differently, so you just have to be understanding.”

Experts on trauma say these storeowners did the right thing. By letting employees share their feelings and giving them a say in how to handle the situation, they showed sensitivity and caring during a difficult period.

Coping with a calamity—be it a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a robbery, or the sudden death of an employee—is not something that most jewelers want to think about. Yet consultants say an employer’s reaction to a calamity can affect not only the employees’ well-being but also that of the business.

“How you handle a crisis can be ‘make or break’ for a company,” says Mark Falango, director of consulting and training for Corporate Counseling in New York, a group that administers employee assistance programs. “It can rip an organization apart, or bring people closer together.”

Flexibility. The key, experts say, is to show both sensitivity and flexibility. In the aftermath of a crisis, managers should be more willing than usual to bend office rules on dress codes and work schedules and to ease restrictions on children in the office and using the telephone for personal calls.

When a crisis strikes or a stressful situation materializes, leaders and managers tend to listen to subordinates less than during normal circumstances. But experts say this is the time to listen more. Each person handles stressful incidents in his own way. Some may seem fine at first and fall apart later. Others react immediately and recover just as quickly. Employees should be told there is no “right” or “wrong” way to handle a crisis.

Naturally, from the business owner’s point of view, it’s best if everyone returns to work as soon as possible. This approach, however, is not right for everyone. Although many find re-establishing a routine ultimately helpful, many workers need to take time off in the wake of a traumatic incident, especially if it occurred on the work premises.

“Returning to work is really an individual experience,” says Falango. “I’ve seen robberies where people can get back to work a minute later, and then there are others where people can’t get back to work for a month.”

Experts say that forcing people to return to work before they are fully able could breed resentment or lead to burnout. Remember, those who don’t return immediately are no less dedicated than other employees—they simply need more time to deal with what happened. Sometimes just giving people the choice of whether or not to return is therapeutic because it gives them a sense of control.

For those who are having a difficult time coping with events, it sometimes helps to offer an extended leave or time off—as long as they are assured their jobs will be there when they get back. Others may benefit from a reduction in workload or hours. If you can’t spare people, give the employee a specific timeframe to work things through. Keep in mind that most employees can’t afford unlimited time off, so this policy isn’t likely to be abused.

Employees dealing with a crisis can’t always be expected to give 100% the minute they return to work, especially if they are dealing with a personal loss. Once again, this is not a sign that an employee lacks dedication; with time, most employees return to normal. If there’s a long-term change in productivity that you feel is hurting the company, you may want to direct the employee to counseling or an employee assistance program. (See sidebar on p. 114.) When talking with an employee about such options, keep the discussion focused on work: Say something along the lines of, “Your output has dropped. Is something the matter?”

Generally, managers should strike a tone that’s empathetic but strong. Don’t take a “poor us” approach. Convey the feeling that “this is hard, but we will hang together and get through it.”

Other tips offered by experts:

  • Don’t be afraid to admit your own feelings. “Sometimes when people are going through a crisis, they feel like they’re going crazy,” says Falango. “But when they see someone else is going through the same thing, it makes them feel better. Just stating your own vulnerability can be helpful to people.” Moreover, showing that you are dealing with grief, fear, or rage—yet can still function—sends a message to employees that they can do the same.

  • Allow staff members more time than usual to commune with each other. If possible, build time into the workday for this.

  • Tell what you know. “People going through a crisis want information,” Falango says. “They want to know what’s going on, and what you’re doing about it. The manager has to be able to tell them. If they don’t, the rumor mill starts, and there’s a lot of misinformation [which] just makes people feel more anxious. And when managers don’t know what’s going on, they should just admit they don’t know what’s going on.”

  • Be available to employees. Try not to leave the office for long periods of time.

  • Don’t single out employees. Don’t praise some people for being strong (“Jack is a rock”) or accuse anyone of being weak (“She should be over it by now,” or “You really fell apart”).

  • Offer access to professional counseling. When an on-site crisis like a shootout occurs, a professional counselor should come to your business within 72 hours and conduct what is known as a “critical incident debriefing session.” Employee assistance programs often can arrange one.

Employees also may need access to individual counseling, either through an EAP or a local mental health clinic. Many health plans cover mental health services. If the trauma is work-related, it could be covered by worker’s compensation.

Halfacre notes that after the shoot-out, very few of his employees took advantage of the counselor his store offered. Nevertheless, just making counseling available was important, because it let the staff know the store cared and that they had a place to turn to in an emergency.

  • Give the staff a way to help. This can decrease feelings of helplessness. For example, following the Oklahoma City bombing, the staff at Samuel Gordon went to McDonald’s and bought 100 hamburgers and 100 drinks for the rescue workers. “It gave us a good feeling,” he says. Other options include companywide fund-raising for charitable causes, or participation in memorials or other organized mourning rituals.

  • Look for signs of distress among employees. These may include angry outbursts, loss of emotional control, uncontrollable crying, a shock-like state, staring, disorientation, and isolation. Refer employees with problems to a counselor or EAP.

  • Take care of yourself. Even if you are not directly affected by the event, dealing with someone else’s trauma can be draining and wearying. Don’t expect to fix or handle everything yourself. Talk with managers who have gone through similar situations, and pay attention to your physical and emotional health.