Crisis Management of Human Resources: Lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Article excerpt

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught many businesses on the Gulf Coast a valuable lesson about the ability of management to plan for every contingency--it cannot. What managers can do is learn from tragedy when it strikes and try to be better prepared the next time. We examine crisis management from a human resource perspective and offer insights into how to minimize losses and disruption should disaster occur. HR managers' centralized location for employee relations, and expertise in communications, writing human resource policies and procedures, and employee training and development offers them the opportunity to make valuable contributions in crisis management planning and implementation. Through lessons learned from these recent storms, we offer specific recommendations on how HR managers can do so. Using examples of how organizations responded to these crises, we illustrate what worked well and what did not in HR.

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Recent events have underscored the need to think about the unthinkable. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught many businesses on the Gulf Coast valuable lessons about the abilities of management to plan for every contingency--it cannot. No matter how forward-thinking company managers are, there is no way to plan for every possibility when a crisis strikes. What managers can do is learn from tragedy when it does happen and try to be better prepared the next time.

After terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, many managers in the United States revisited their crisis management plans with hopes that they would be prepared should a similar disaster, whether manmade or natural, hit (Kondrasuk, 2004). Because Hurricanes Katrina and Rita packed a one-two punch to the Gulf Coast, many businesses across the country again are examining their disaster preparedness and crisis management plans in light of new lessons learned. This article examines crisis management (CM) from a human resource perspective and offers valuable insights on how to minimize losses and disruption should disaster strike.

We begin by defining CM, outlining the phases of the CM process, and exploring how the concept of organizational learning relates to CM. In particular we illustrate that now is the optimal time to learn from these crises. We then examine the HR manager's role in CM and how HR managers can take advantage of these recent crises to improve their organizations' responses to future events. We offer specific recommendations to improve CM in the HR arena and use several examples to illustrate what HR managers have learned and how these lessons can minimize disruptions in the future.

Crisis Management and Organizational Learning

An organizational crisis is "a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly" (Pearson & Clair, 1998). CM involves a systematic attempt by managers to prevent crises from occurring and to manage crises successfully when they do take place. CM begins long before a crisis occurs and continues long after recovery (Pearson, et al., 1997). Three major stages of CM include (Castillo, 2004; Heath, 1998):

1. Pre-crisis or planning: Managers plan how to respond to crisis events that may occur;

2. The crisis itself: Managers respond to the crisis in hopes of reducing or mitigating its impact; and

3. Post-crisis or recovery: Managers assess the damage and attempt to return the organization to at least its pre-crisis state.

The literature on CM and organizational learning suggests that crises may be beneficial if specific learning outcomes are encouraged, because crises create learning readiness in organizations (Kovoor-Misra & Nathan, 2000). They shine a light on organizational weaknesses that might otherwise remain hidden or be ignored. …