Putting out fires

Do you know what to do when disaster strikes the office?

It was a Friday afternoon in January 2014 when Pierre Samson and his colleagues at the Gatineau, Que., auditing firm Samson & Associates CPA/Consulting Inc. heard about an attack in a restaurant in Kabul. Two of the company’s staff members were in Afghanistan’s capital city at the time, doing audits on projects run by the Canadian government. The team suspected the worst.

The office transformed into a war room: administrative staff started telephoning and emailing the men, their family members, the Canadian government and local contacts in Kabul. Within hours, the manager at the hotel where the businessmen were staying confirmed it: Martin Glazer, who’d been at the firm for a decade, and Peter McSheffrey, who had two teenage daughters back home, had been killed by gunmen who rushed into the restaurant after a suicide bomber blew open its doors.

For the rest of the weekend, Samson and his six partners lived out of their office, getting almost no sleep, as they informed their staff (the firm has a small administrative team and a group of 80 to 100 consultants, most of whom work off-site), got word to the families (two partners told McSheffrey’s wife personally) and started making arrangements to have the bodies shipped back to Canada with assistance from the government.

On Monday morning, the partners called a staff meeting, which most of their consultants were able to attend. The firm offers HR consulting services to clients, and members of that team helped guide the discussion, which encouraged everyone to talk. "These were not just employees — they were buddies," says Samson. Looking back, he recalls operating on adrenalin for weeks and leading his team with a sense that the families had to be cared for and everyone needed to be heard. "There’s no training for such a thing. We’re trained to be accountants."

Not every workplace will have to ride out this kind of brutal tragedy. But office crises are surprisingly common. A death, of course, can radically upset everyone on the team, but so can a local natural disaster such as an ice storm or flood; a big layoff; a violent episode or serious accident on the job; an office relocation; a major downsizing; or a problem with a company’s products or services (such as causing harm to a customer or having to announce a huge recall). Even a new manager with a drastically different leadership style can upset office culture, requiring intervention. "When you have something that is traumatic to your workplace, it can derail you from meeting your business goals if you don’t deal with it properly," says Laura Williams, principal of Williams HR Law and CEO of Williams HR Consulting in Markham, Ont. She calls it "workplace restoration," and she says companies must carefully manage traumatic issues so people can get back to work efficiently. Management schools rarely cover this topic, but it’s an essential part of leadership, and mismanaging a workplace incident or disruption can lead to lingering problems for weeks and even years. "This can make or break your organization," says Suzanne Jolly, a workplace health consultant based in Squamish, BC. Wondering how you’d move your employees through a crisis and keep them safe, motivated, emotionally stable and ready to get back to business on the other end? Here are some steps from the experts.


Most companies have been prodded to develop a risk-management plan for issues that negatively affect the workplace such as financial meltdowns or large-scale negative media attention (not that businesses always obey; many risk-management plans lie half-written). But Williams says leaders should also chart out their response for internal tragedies and rifts. "Put the issues in buckets. You won’t come up with the exact scenarios, but you should have plans for certain things you can bucket," she says. Understand the services offered by the company employee assistance program (EAP), such as grief counseling, and decide who will be the point person when clients call for a deceased, ill, suspended or laid-off employee. Sketch out a script for what to say to those clients and review federal privacy legislation so you know what you can disclose. Most critically, work out your internal lines of communication to keep your team informed.


"The biggest management faux pas is not saying something wrong; it’s not saying anything at all," Williams says. Leaders have to put the problem front and centre and disclose what they can. Ignoring a problem triggers the rumour mill and can lead to long-term mistrust. Once management has finished offering information, it’s time to turn the mike over to the team. "Employees, with leadership there, should be able to talk about how this impacted them," says Williams. While executives may have a sense of what employees need to heal, it should be the staff who decides when and how to have a memorial service, to take up a collection for a charity or group-sign a card. Management should offer support for executing team ideas, but also make sure everyone’s needs are being met. "There can be resentment sometimes for people who have their own way of coping," warns Jolly. Some staff members might not want to talk. They might not want to sign the card. "A good leader will take note and support that," she says.


"Getting back to work — it’s the elephant in the room," says Williams. Many offices will take a day off after a severe tragedy, or devote a morning to talking about something difficult that’s going on. But making the transition back to clients and deadlines can cause guilt for some employees, and make leaders and owners feel torn between compassion for colleagues and worry over the bottom line. Jolly suggests simply being open: tell the team work must continue so the company stays afloat and clients get what they need — and that work can be healing. Employees can plan ways to acknowledge the tragedy and still continue with their jobs. "Something that leaves a structure in place is a good idea," she says. Williams suggests offering a means for those who aren’t coping to take breaks and have access to support services — even months later, when they decide it’s time. At Samson & Associates, work never stopped. "Our clients sent us emails and sympathy cards, but they still wanted their reports." So, remembering their peers has been an ongoing process: the company named two office boardrooms after the men, and recently held a wine and cheese get-together to mark the one-year anniversary of their death.


When things get rough for their teams, leaders often have to put their own needs (like sleep) last. They take on heartbreaking tasks such as informing people of bad news, and yet there’s an ongoing expectation that these people will remain perfectly composed — no tears, please. But an exhausted manager with no support may neglect to listen — he or she can make a wrongheaded choice or just snap. "That person needs to reach out and have at least one support person he or she can talk to," says Jolly. Call on the EAP for counseling and find another leader you can trust to lean on. Even when work calls, take time off. Samson and his partners — who put in long hours for weeks working to repatriate the bodies, deal with paperwork and keep up with the firm’s workload — would send each other home when nerves got frayed. They also made sure to offer support to the victims’ direct manager: he had been a very close friend of one of the men and often took on the role of supporting the families amid his own grief.

In an ideal world, tragedy won’t strike your workplace. But realistically, an incident will occur that triggers feelings and disrupts how everyone feels about life, work, each other and management. Step in early with a compassionate ear to limit financial and emotional repercussions.