Top academic offers post-quake advice

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With parts of New Zealand still cut-off or recovering from this week’s major earthquake, many employers will find themselves in an unfamiliar situation, unsure of how to operate effectively.

Bernard Walker, on the other hand, is an expert in the field.  As the associate professor of HR management and organisational behaviour at Canterbury University, Walker co-authored a 2013 study which analysed organisational responses following the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.

The paper – Leading in a Post-disaster Setting: Guidance for Human Resource Practitioners – provides much-needed direction to employers operating in recovery situations and has since been used by international policy makers.

“The purpose was to provide guidelines to managers and HR staff about handling the twin tasks of restoring their businesses while also attending to the wellbeing of staff,” says Walker.

In-depth interviews with affected employees revealed exactly where organizations had failed – or succeeded – in the post-disaster setting and offered insight into what was most important for employees.
“The critical riddle was that although all the organizations coped with the disaster and recovery, some didn’t just survive the adversity but actually went from strength to strength and were able to learn from their quake experiences to radically transform the way they work – that they are now smarter, faster, more competent, and expanding their businesses,” says Walker.

One of the key points that came from the research was that people’s needs do not stay the same – they continue to change and evolve in the days and weeks following a disaster.

“It means that you can’t simply write disaster plans in advance and then follow them. You have to constantly keep in touch with the changing situation and staff-issues that are more subtle rather than in-your-face,” says Walker.

“During the very early days, virtually all the larger businesses tended to follow the others by providing the very obvious tangible kinds of initial support, the sorts of things you can see and touch like water and food supplies,” he explains. “The real difference comes after that, when two patterns emerge.”

According to Walker, organizations that listen to their staff are able to pick up on changing issues and look to address them – but employers that aren’t in touch with staff tend to miss the less obvious signs. “Those organisations get into difficulty,” he says.

The resulting article offers a practical four-phase model for HR professionals and employers to follow:

Phase one – Physical needs and communication
  • Ensure physical and psychological safety, evacuation, contact staff, communicate with families, provide necessities such as food, water and shelter.
Phase two – Recovery: Monitoring changing needs
  • Seek constant feedback from employees to identify the evolving needs of workers – from housing and childcare to social support and counselling.
Phase three – Recovery: Expectations and maintaining equity
  • Short and long-term post disaster planning to address current needs and anticipate emerging needs. Devise assistance measures that are seen as fair and equitable to all employees and ensure they are sustainable.
Phase four – Leadership behaviour of supervisors
  • Increased focus on the emotional awareness of supervisors and middle managers, including their ability to empathise with others, offer support and recognize and respond to needs – both emotional and practical.
 
While the four-phase model is designed for employers operating in post-disaster environments, Walker says there’s a simple message at the heart of the piece – one which is still useful following less traumatic events like this week’s earthquake.

 “Apart from developing contingency plans, the most important thing an organization can do to be able to cope with a disaster, or any other major upheaval, is to be a good employer,” he says.

“Having engaged employees, competent leaders who understand people, and excellent two-way communication, are some of the capacities that will really equip your organisation for turbulent times.

“If HR takes the initiative in shaping these people-related processes, then they will be leaders in developing organisational resilience. The sorts of factors that build engagement also contribute to resilience.”

Walker also pointed to two resources which offer additional guidance - Staffed or Stuffed: Creating resilience through your people, which puts much of the study into an easy-reading format - and Building Adaptive Resilience which is about the longer term process  of creating a resilient organisation.

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