Monday, December 22, 2008
For example, every organization must have plans to deal with grieving and distraught employees. You need to be able to make immediate contact with grief counselors. Airlines and banks are perhaps among the best at this because, with crashes and holdups, they deal with grieving employees and family members more than they would like. They've learned that some employees may not be able to work for a day or more following a workplace shooting or an accident with multiple fatalities. Suddenly, work doesn't feel like a safe place to be anymore. HR has to be prepared to work through feelings with employees. (Are you listening, educators?)
If you're lucky enough never to have gone through a serious crisis, it's probably hard to understand how many decisions need to be made in what feels like very little time. Valuable time and energy are wasted figuring out how to handle pay, absenteeism, and financial assistance for victims' families, along with grief counselling. If all the hard choices are made up front, HR staff can concentrate on implementing policies rather than creating them immediately after a serious crisis.
These also are issues you need to be dealing with in planning for a flu pandemic. When the flu starts, it's too late to start arguing about pay and benefit policies. And when an earthquake damages your building and causes employee injuries or fatalities, you'll lose far more productivity if you wait till the ground stops shaking before considering how you can ease the pain for employees and their families and get back to business.
For more about HR and crisis planning, an article by Kathryn McKee with good real-life examples can be found at http://disaster-resource.com/newsletter/subpages/v262/08DRG_p75_low-res.pdf.
I, on the other hand, grew up three blocks from a steel mill. Relatives and friends visiting our house were free to smoke indoors. Cars spewed who-knows-how-many toxins into the air in those days before catalytic converters and other emission control devices.
USA Today has been running a series about the levels of toxic air that exist at schools across the country. I just read today's installment (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/2008-12-21-youngkids_N.htm) and wonder what you think. Are we scaring ourselves to death? Or is this a real threat to kids' health when they are adults? No one knows, and not enough has been done to study the effects of airborne toxins on developing bodies and brains. I know some of my classmates have died of natural causes. But can we blame the steel mill, which could be seen from the elementary school I attended for two years? (That steel mill, by the way, paid me a good salary when I worked there in PR in the late '70s. It's now closed and the 5,000 employees are doing other things.)
When I was in community relations for a chemical company, I was often frustrated by plant neighbors complaining about our emissions as they puffed away holding toddlers on their laps. I went to neighborhood meetings where there was so much cigarette smoke I had to drive home with the windows down because the smell of my clothes made me gag. I believe they exposed me to more toxins than my company did to them. People don't think about the fumes given off by bathroom cleaners. And the new rug they are so happy with is emitting unknown levels of toxic vapors.
What I'm saying is to control the risks that you can control. Don't smoke, or at least don't do it indoors with your kids. Use cleaners in well-ventilated areas, and try to clean when the kids are out. Let new products like carpeting and furniture air out before sealing your home and trapping in vapors. Stay out of parking garages if you're pregnant. And by all means, question that business across the street from the school. Ask what's being emitted, and push government to monitor and pass tougher restrictions, if health may be at risk. That's exactly what happened here in Louisville, Kentucky. See Jim Bruggers' article in USA Today at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/2008-12-16-toxic-louisville_N.htm.
The approach taken with Meredith Hitchens Elementary in suburban Cincinnati was to close it in 2005 after air samples outside the building showed high levels of carcinogens coming from the plastics plant across the street. I want to know why the school closed but it was business as usual at the plastics plant. That may not be the case, but I'd like to know. I also would like to know the toxic levels inside the school from plastic furniture, carpet, tile floors, paint, the faculty lounge, etc. Several states already are discussing monitoring programs around schools, and in Kentucky, the talk is to include inside of schools too. Applaud here. The EPA needs to fund studies to see if there are links between certain chemicals and illnesses.
In the meantime, if you are responsible for crisis planning at a facility that handles toxic materials, your crisis plan needs to include a section that covers the community's and politicians' demands for emission reductions, whether it's air or water. Every once in a while, government will react to a non-problem with a premature knee-jerk reaction. Never knew that before, did you? You should identify stakeholders, messages, and strategies to get your messages delivered, heard, and believed. In fact, such strategies should already be part of your ongoing community relations practices. If they're not, you may be too late when the queen starts randomly demanding, "Off with their heads!" As we experienced in Louisville, air toxics may be poised to become the new nationwide front-burner issue industry must be prepared to manage.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
We probably all heard about the employee sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in North Chicago earlier this month. The company laid off employees and claimed it couldn't pay them benefits they were owed because Bank of America had cut off Republic's financing.
Blagojevich visited the employees and offered to help. He threatened to suspend all the state's business dealings with Bank of America unless the company restored credit to Republic. A few days later, the bank relented and made a $1.35 million loan.
I thought one of the key contributors to today's economic crisis is banks making bad loans to those with little hope of repaying. Does it scare you as it does me that a politician would interfere with a bank transaction and extort a loan for someone he favors without regard to the economics involved? And what does that tell us about the political clout that one person can wield over others in order to help a cause he supports? We probably would have heard more about the governor's threat if he hadn't been arrested the next day for a sexier offense: selling the President-elect's Senate seat.
Meanwhile, imagine the consternation at Bank of America, a company and an industry with enough daily crises as it is. Executives had to weigh improper and probably illegal threats with being ostracized by state government. If the bank had hung tough to a reasonable business decision, it faced more criticism for accepting bailout money from the taxpayers and then coldly turning its back on the little people. Failure to comply also meant a loss of business, which wouldn't go down well with shareholders. So Bank of America made perhaps the least costly decision: Issue a loan against its better business sense and continue to play ball in Illinois.
This story has no winners, really. If Shakespeare were alive, it would make for a really good tragic play.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
"This hospital has a history of financial problems, poor treatment of employees, bullying the union, lack of a positive profile in the community, and failure to release any information or comments about any of its crises during the past year.... No matter how bad your crisis may be, it looks worse to those stakeholders waiting for your assurances, your action plan, or something that might give the impression you're on top of the problem."
Here's an update: On December 7, the hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It filed an earlier Chapter 11 in 2002 when it was Aliquippa Community Hospital, but lost $12 million more after that, prompting its takeover by Commonwealth. The new owner lists assets of between $10 million and $50 million and liabilities of the same. (Shouldn't they be able to narrow that range by, like, a lot?) Commonwealth paid $23 million for the struggling, 96-bed hospital last year. That deal didn't work out so hot, did it? Shouldn't assets be at least $23 million? Oh, well. Maybe Congress will bail them out.
Thanks to Pat Rowe, Managing Partner of The Rowe Partnership, for this insightful piece. His company "consults to, trains, and coaches organizations to more effectively identify, assess and develop current and future organizational leaders (http://www.therowepartnership.com/)."
GREAT CRISIS LEADERS: 10 KEY CHARACTERISTICS
By Pat Rowe
When observing the leadership behavior of successful crisis leaders, 10 critical characteristics emerge:
1. Seeing things for what they are. Strong crisis leaders live on the front end of reality. They recognize events and their significance and do not shy away from the consequences of what they see. Intellectual integrity is a key component of their DNA; they think of what is best for the organization, not their own personal gain.
2. Strategy and detail. They are able to see the big picture. They can see all of the moving parts and understand what is cause and what is effect. They get below the 30,000-foot level and can dig deep into detail without being mired in it. They quickly develop a very detailed knowledge of the issues. This ability further enhances their capacity to view the problem realistically.
3. Multiple options. When they have identified the problems, they are willing to consider multiple approaches to how these may be addressed. Initially, they engage others in brainstorming potential solutions without judgment, even though they may have a preferred solution in mind. They are confident enough to know and accept that their way may not be the best way.
4. Decisiveness. Taking ownership of the solution means being decisive. When they feel they have listened to the best advice, they are willing to make a decision. Strong leaders will use a combination of real-time data along with their "gut;" the wisdom built on years of leadership experience. When they make that decision they know they need to "sell" it to key stakeholders and work tirelessly to ensure organizational resistance does not block the effectiveness of the decision.
5. Collaboration. Strong leaders take ownership of the problem. They understand, however, that a long-term solution requires the input and involvement of many stakeholders. They identify those individuals and work together towards a solution that most support and most can live with.
6. Listen to unpopular advice. Unsuccessful leaders listen only to those who agree with them and often encourage one-dimensional thinking. The successful crisis leader seeks out individuals who have a different perspective on an issue. They include individuals with whom they may not agree and whose advice may be contrary to that of their closest advisers.
7. Calm, courageous and positive. They feel a sense of urgency and remain even-tempered. They recognize that an organization, a country or the world is watching them and know that how they present themselves will provide non-verbal signals to the audience. They will deliver bad news when they need to and do it in a way that avoids panic and provides a realistic level of hope for the future. Above all, they are courageous enough to make decisions they believe to be the right ones, regardless of whether they are the more popular ones.
8. Take risk in the face of risk. Crises often bring the leader face-to-face with a set of situations they have not previously seen. There are questions to which they do not know the answers. Gathering contrarian viewpoints from individuals with whom they might not agree, but respect, likely means they may create solutions not previously tried, and outcomes of which may be unknown. If it is the best solution, however, the strong leader is prepared to take the calculated risk.
9. 80% rule. Leaders certainly want to make the right set of decisions. Strong leaders understand they will not always have all of the information they might like. They know that making an imperfect decision can often be better than making no decision at all. Even if the decision needs to be "fine tuned" for implementation, they are comfortable making it.
10. Prepare to admit mistakes. Courageous leaders who take calculated risks will undoubtedly make mistakes at some point. Deep crises require continuous decision making. The volume of decisions required in multi-faceted crises can almost guarantee that not every decision will be 100% correct. Strong leaders are prepared to admit their mistakes.
Not every leader will have all 10 characteristics in equal proportion; some will be stronger in one area than another. However, most leaders who are successful managing through deep crises will possess a majority of these characteristics. The 10 characteristics can provide you with a vehicle for your own personal crisis management audit. Rather than using it to evaluate someone else in the organization, see things for what they are. Evaluate your own crisis management leadership. If you are in doubt about your own objectivity, get input from others. Most especially, include those with views that differ from your own.
Once in a while, we hear in the news about a catastrophic dust explosion somewhere with fatalities and impacts on the neighboring community. Dust explosions are more common than I would have guessed. The Combustible Dust Policy Institute (That's a new one on me.) claims there have been 30 dust-related explosions in the past year.
If you are responsible for crisis communications in one of the above industries, you can see that dust explosions are a highly possible scenario and need to be covered in your crisis plan. If you are in the chemical industry, you ought to have "explosions" well covered. But how about you in the business of dehydrated foods or powdered dairy products? You need to be as ready for a dust explosion as we were when making powdered additives for plastic.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
What would you do? Here's what a firm called Commonwealth did last January when it purchased Aliquippa Community Hospital in western Pennsylvania. It changed the name from being Aliquippa's "community" hospital, which opened to treat local steelworkers in the '50s, to the cold and sterile-sounding Commonwealth Medical Center. Worse, hours before the acquisition took affect, management fired all its employees, including 180 union members, then immediately hired back about half the workforce. The half hired back did not include the union's two officers, and the process completely ignored seniority measures in the contract.
Mary Driscoll, one of the fired employees last January, said, "Commonwealth Medical Center missed the big opportunity to reach out to its employees, to reach out to the community, to elected officials, and everybody else; to kind of bring us in to help them make this a workable situation." (http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/15060179/detail.html) Bless you, Mary! If employees can get it, why can't management? The hospital had no comment. Eventually, Commonwealth agreed to recognize the union and avert a strike.
On Jan. 29, Commonwealth agreed to correct deficiencies and meet state Department of Health licensing requirements, including payment of $62,500 in fines. That was the only way the hospital's license would be renewed, which came just one day before a state deadline to comply with regulations or close. (http://pittsburgh.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/stories/2008/02/04/story7.html?jst=cn_cn_lk)
In October, CEO Willie Wilson resigned suddenly without giving a reason publicly. Negotiations over a new union contract, which expired in June, were bogged down at the time. The new CEO had no comment -- about negotiations, Wilson's resignation, or anything else.
That brings us to last week. The state Department of Health shut down Commonwealth Medical Center just before Thanksgiving. The department issued the unusual ban on admissions after learning the hospital was violating a number of licensing standards and was facing shortages of supplies and equipment. The hospital also had not paid a natural gas bill and was threatened with having its supply turned off (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08331/931112-100.stm?cmpid=latest.xml). Only four patients remained in the hospital at the time. If I were one of them, I would be looking to wheel myself out of that place by whatever means I was able! The state gave Commonwealth until Monday to submit records to demonstrate financial stability. The hospital missed the deadline, which was extended until noon Tuesday (http://www.timesonline.com/articles/2008/12/03/news/doc4935ed32f1d3d532025409.txt). I still can't find a single quote from anyone at Commonwealth.
This hospital has a history of financial problems, poor treatment of employees, bullying the union, lack of a positive profile in the community, and failure to release any information or comments about any of its crises during the past year. What kind of picture do you get of this hospital and the people who manage it? No matter how bad your crisis may be, it looks worse to those stakeholders waiting for your assurances, your action plan, or something that might give the impression you're on top of the problem.
Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, worked with a variety of clients to help them prepare for what might have come on January 1. Someone since then has made the point, "We did all that worrying and work and nothing happened." Larry is quick to point out that all that worrying and work were the reasons why nothing happened.
When the flu pandemic strikes again, we might not be so lucky, depending on the severity of the virus. Just as we all prepared for Y2K, we must prepare similarly for the pandemic, which the World Health Organization says is due to strike based on history. Now is the time to be looking at your human resources, contracts with customers and suppliers, health care benefits, and legal concerns with a worst-case assumption that your business may be closed for two months. Think of steps you can take to ensure your business survives an extended shutdown. This economic environment doesn't allow room for poor preparation.
If you need help planning, call Larry or me (http://www.crisisexperts.com/). We'll try to help you repeat Y2K, when nothing bad happened.