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Survey Results: How to Respond When the Unexpected Happens

In business, as in life, you can try to anticipate the unanticipated. But unexpected events come along, disrupt daily operations, and send those carefully considered plans right out the window.  

As part of i4cp’s ongoing research on organizational agility, we recently conducted a brief pulse survey of 115 HR leaders to evaluate how they and their organizations respond to these disruptors—from proposed travel bans and public protests to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.  

Dealing with the devastating human toll taken by such events is certainly an organization’s primary concern. But there are also practical, business-related implications to consider. Consider that 56% of the leaders surveyed said their organizations have experienced a loss of productivity due to a natural disaster in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, 24% said they’ve seen productivity dip due to immigration-related actions such as the so-called travel ban proposed by the Trump administration.  

Taking fast action

If the results of our poll are any indication, organizations are responding quickly and emphatically when faced with such extraordinary circumstances. On the other hand, there remains room to improve, namely in terms of who gets involved in the response effort. For example:  

  • More than half of respondents (59%) reported that their organizations respond effectively to crises to a very high or high extent, with 32% saying their efforts are successful to a moderate extent.  
  • Overall, 35% of those polled said their organizations have created formal structures to deal with social and political issues or crises. Another 25% reported that they’ve created guidelines and at least a loose structure to handle out-of-the-ordinary events like those mentioned above.  

Of the organizations that have rapid response protocols in place, what do those responses entail? And what can your organization learn from them? Based on the answers we received, i4cp has a handful of recommendations: 

  • Release an official statement from the CEO or another executive team member directly referencing the incident or taking a stand on an issue. When asked what external activities their organization has engaged in to address a disruptive social or political issue or crisis in the last 12 months, 38% of respondents said their organization takes this step.   
  • Provide support (financial or otherwise) to external stakeholders affected by the incident. Another 37% indicate they’ve done as much in the past year.   
  • Release an official statement from the CEO or other executive team member reaffirming organizational values relating to the incident, without specifically mentioning it; an approach taken by 35% of respondents.  
  • Join with other organizations—within the same industry or geography, for example—in a solidarity statement or effort related to an issue; 29% of survey participants say their companies form such partnerships in these instances.   

Get the right people in the right places

How companies respond when a crisis occurs is obviously paramount. Timeliness is equally crucial.  

Most survey respondents said the response of their organizations is indeed rapid. Among those with a formal rapid response system in place, 67% said their organizations act within 24 hours of becoming aware of an issue or event. Another 25% do so within two to three days of the event or issue surfacing.  

How and when the organization crafts its response, it must ensure that the right people are included. According to our findings, management team members—including those from HR—are leading the effort at most companies. Among those with static or ad-hoc crisis response teams, 74% feature members of the executive team, 71% incorporate the chief HR officer, 65% bring in the CEO, and 62% involve the chief communication officer.  

Among its many roles, HR is often seen as a key conduit between the organization’s leadership team and its employees. As such, the CHRO should be playing an instrumental part in determining how and when the company reacts in a defining moment. It’s heartening to see that many HR leaders already are.  

It’s surprising, however, that our survey doesn’t find more organizations also giving customer-facing employees prominent roles in crafting or carrying out rapid response strategies. Overall, just 31% of those polled indicate that customer service/client-facing representatives are part of their response teams.  

Without a doubt, the HR team should be among those who are front and center representing the organization (both externally and internally) in a time of crisis. But wouldn’t it make sense to have these employees—who interact with your external stakeholders daily—standing beside them? 

i4cp members: download the survey results for more detail.