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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/5/2016 (1519 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s often been said that no business is ever too far from tragedy, or at least a very difficult challenge.
Well, that’s certainly come true with news of the Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire, which has destroyed hundreds of businesses and homes.
Winnipeg, too, is not immune to tragedy: last week, an employee died in an accident at a local businesses.
Hopefully, you haven’t been touched by such a devastating tragedy, but the question is: are you ready for any unexpected emergency in your workplace? How many of you have experienced a power outage in your building that caused all the computers to crash? Or something as simple as the washrooms not working, so for health reasons, you need to send everyone home? One day without the ability to work is costly. And, there are many times when a good number of your employees are ill at the same time.
No matter what, as a business leader, you need to be as prepared as you can. That’s because a tragedy can put you out of your business for weeks or months at a time, creating even more unexpected challenges with respect to one’s legal obligations to their employees.
For instance, in the case of the fire in Fort McMurray, labour lawyer Tracey Epp, a partner with Winnipeg’s Pitblado Law, indicates the challenges for those owners could be complicated.
For instance, while the question of when and how to get back to business will certainly be top of mind, there would also be an issue with what to do with employees, especially those who are already working off-site via a mobile connection and/or tele-commuting.
This raises the question as to whether or not employees are able to carry on their work on behalf of the employer. Can work be completed through email or other devices or will it come to an end?
To be sure, the first thing a business owner needs to do is communicate with employees to let them know the circumstances and provide direction. After all, receiving a demand for payment from an employee who continued to work on their own without the business owner’s knowledge or direction creates another undesirable challenge.
In the case of a devastating fire where a business becomes non-existent and restoration could be years away, it is impossible for employees to return to work. In this case, a work interruption would be permanent, yet the employees themselves would not be considered terminated.
While you might think this would automatically trigger at least an employee payment in lieu of notice, not all provincial employment standard legislations, including in Manitoba, support this. In other words, if what is called, "true frustration" of employment occurs, the employer may not have to pay its employees for the standard notice period.
Another challenge for those who have lost everything is the issue of company records. A tragedy such as the one in Fort McMurray is all the more reason why records management professionals recommend some sort of off-site storage for computerized business information.
Business leaders will quickly need to get access to employment records for salaries, vacation, benefits, union dues (if applicable) and addresses.
Since employees cannot return to work, consideration for full payout of unused vacation should be considered. Owners will also need access to financial information, such as accounts payable/receivable in order to keep the cash flowing.
And, there is a need for a temporary address and contact information for all concerned.
When a break in income for employees is obvious, the business owner will need to issue a record of employment for each employee so they can at least apply for employment insurance. In this case, the code to be used would be "K" with an explanation that the business was destroyed by fire.
If a work disruption is temporary, a business owner can expect most employees to return to work; however, in the case of a long-term shutdown, most employees will have gone on to other jobs. On the other hand, owners could be faced with the question of which employees to invite to return to work.
While not every employee needs to be invited to return, now is not the time to play favourites and/or excuse an employee due to other workplace situations, such as being on a short-term workers compensation claim or being pregnant.
Special attention needs to be paid to provincial human rights codes when undertaking workforce planning.
While success in returning to business viability is contingent on the resolution of many financial and insurance issues, communication with employees, vendors and customers is also extremely important.
In today’s world, there are so many alternative communication strategies that spreading the word quickly is much easier than in earlier times.
If a physical meeting is out of the question, then conference calls can be arranged. Work with a service provider to get that company Facebook page operational. With so many people on various social-media sites, form an informational team of employees in order to continue getting messages out.
Emotions run high when tragedy strikes. If your company has paid for employee-assistance services, now is the time to make sure your employees use them.
The tragic death of a local employee brings home the need for an employer not only to reach out to the direct family, but also to look after the needs of the employee "family."
They are frightened, sad and grieving the loss of their colleague. They also experience the stages of grief, swinging from shock to anger to sadness and confusion. They will also shed tears.
The challenge for business managers is that they literally don’t have the time to grieve — they have to get back to work. The skill void must be replaced urgently: customers and shareholders are waiting.
As I have written in this column before, there are no right or wrong ways for a business to grieve the loss of a colleague.
However, there are some proven strategies that will help you cope and to express the grief in a healthy and constructive way. Once again, the key goal is to communicate with your employees. Think ahead regarding the questions your employees might have, and be sure you have a response.
Provide grief counselling for those closest to the employee who has died. Coach your managers on how to deal with grief and loss, stressing the need for patience and understanding.
Find a way to honour the individual during the work week — design an appropriate memorial activity, paste photos of past celebrations in your lunch room and celebrate the individual’s contributions.
In the case of a long-term employee, you’ll find that the family also feels a strong tie to the employer. Where possible, consider creating a family memorial gift book in order to share some workplace memories. Give the book as a gift to the family. While they may not review it upon receipt, they will appreciate it at a later date.
Finally, similar to the current Red Cross initiatives for Fort McMurray, consider raising money from your employees to donate to a cause that was dear to the heart of your former employee. Or start a scholarship or a fund, or dedicate an event in the colleague’s name. Be sure to involve the family.
As Epp emphasizes, managing a business tragedy such as a devastating fire or death in the workplace creates difficult challenges for all concerned. Communication, good employee planning, quick decision-making, sensitivity and good judgment are key to triumphing over adversity.
Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also an author, keynote speaker, columnist, executive coach and career consultant. She can be reached at: email@example.com
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