The Management Series
Dec 2017

What If: Planning for Disasters You Can’t Imagine

The onslaught of news about natural catastrophes, violence and a wave of sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits seems both unrelenting and unimaginable.

But Howard Mavity, a co-chair of Fisher Phillips’ Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group, suggests these events should serve as a prod to make sure you are prepared for hard-to-anticipate or disastrous events.

“In my world, crazy as it sounds, there are routine, or at least ‘normal’ workplace fatalities and catastrophes, union attacks on employers, and harassment claims,” Mavity wrote in a blog article called “What If… Harassment, ‘Me Too’ and the Media.” “However, the recent onslaught of catastrophes and harassment allegations are anything but normal.”

He then asks: “Have you prepared responses to such challenges?” and “Have you even determined all of your areas of vulnerability and risk?” He suggests creating a “what-if committee” that can seek to address those questions in a disciplined manner.

“Asking ‘what-if’ is a recognized tool in carrying out various types of hazard analysis ranging from combustible dust to process safety management, not to mention various IT applications,” Mavity says.

He then quotes the American Chemical Society definition of a What-If Analysis: “A technique using ‘structured’ brainstorming to determine what can go wrong in specific scenarios and identify the resulting consequences.”

To get such a committee going, Mavity provides a long and astonishingly broad list of potential problems, ranging from poor management and inadequate training to power losses and supply chain interruptions to natural disaster and failure of software, equipment or instruments.

“You can probably run this list up another 50 issues—that’s the point,” he advises. “Then you sift, rank, prioritize and analyze.”

To spark some thinking, Mavity throws out specific “curve ball” examples that could be overlooked. Consider this one: “If you are a utility, cable provider or municipality, have you considered what happens if your lines are tied to the cause of wildfires?”

Mavity also maps out a process to follow to evaluate each specific issue the committee tackles. He created a chart that includes the questions to be asked and the answers being sought.

  • State the “what if” problem.
  • Arrive at an answer.
  • Determine the likelihood.
  • Determine the consequences.
  • Make recommendations.

The chart also has columns for identifying the divisions, processes and activity involved in each step—which team caused the problem or is responsible for being prepared for it, for example, or what divisions will suffer the consequences of a particular disaster or management misstep?

Since many recent events involved sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, this is also a good time to think specifically about your harassment policies and best practices for preventing and reporting it.

Employment attorney Jennifer Grady wrote a comprehensive piece on the issue, titled “What Can Employers Learn from the Harvey Weinstein Scandal?” Before she even gets into specific policies, she defines harassment and the effects it has on victims, the workforce and the employer.

Grady provides case studies and best practices intended to prevent harassment in the first place and for creating a system for reporting incidents.

For advice on how to conduct an investigation of harassment claims, take a look at our June article “Clear Policies and Training Help with Workplace Harassment.” 

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