Family and Community in Business Continuity

When put to the test, most business continuity plans fail to meet their basic minimum objectives. The missing link may be a lack of focus on the fundamental social factors that affect managers and employees decisions concerning theri commitment to their job and work place.


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When put to the test, most business continuity plans fail to meet their basic minimum objectives (Devargas, 1999). This may be partly because such "emergency plans" are likely to have been a standard plan pulled off the internet so as to satisfy federal or local regulations. To some extent, this approach toward business continuity seems to reflect the "it won't happen to me" attitude of many business managers. More sophisticated evidence, however, suggests that even when risk of a disaster is perceived as just round the corner, there is no frenzied rush to be prepared (Kirschenbaum, 2005). Even in cases when warned of an impending disaster threatening their work place, the first reactions of employees is denial (Drabek, 2001). This leads me to argue that perhaps there is something more fundamental that is missing in the way business continuity is being developed, marketed and perceived by potential clients! that missing link, is none other than a lack of focus on the fundamental social based factors that affect managers and employees decisions concerning their commitment to their job and work place.

Empowered Employees

It is no secret that a host of "buzz words" have infiltrated the area of business continuity; 'hazards,' 'critical infrastructure,' 'incident management,' and 'risk assessment.' For the most part they have been directed at the physical plant and information systems, creating the notion that finding alternative safe houses for data and secured telecommunications lines solves the problem of a threat to a business. While these are crucial, there still remains the underlying basis for all organizations - its employees!

Thus, along with the physical organizational structure, it is equally important to ensure the availability of staff capable of operating these systems under adverse disaster conditions (Paton, 1999). It also means having a business continuity model that takes into account and plans to serve employees, customers, stakeholders, and the community (Castillo, 2004). This requires focusing on people, their abilities, resources, and sometimes foibles. Just ask yourself, what good does a backup generator do when no one cares or is around to maintain it? Having an underground bunker for backup computers is useless unless skilled employees are available who can use them.

Translating this emphasis on employees into action means that the business continuity plan should include the safety and accessibility of staff members (Swartz, 2003) and not marginalize the importance of ensuring the availability of employees capable of operating these systems during emergencies (Meyer-Emerick & Momen, 2003). When making reasonable assessments of the threat and potential damage of a disaster, the fundamental assumption is that there might be a loss of workplace, of potential personnel shortages due to injuries, operation difficulties because of the loss of key people, difficulty in extending work hours and fears among employees about the fate and safety of their families (Perry & Mankin, 2005).

Family and Community

This last issue, the fate and safety of employee's families, when matched against other predictive variables for staying at the job, has been found to be strategic in affecting job and work place commitment in disasters (Drabek, 2001). Mainly ignored in business continuity planning, the family is in fact a key component in determining disaster related behavior (Kirschenbaum, 2005). Concern for family members appears repeatedly as a prime reason in how risks are perceived and preparedness actions accomplished. Such concerns also contribute to the tensions between work and family commitment. These tensions are evident in decisions to go to, stay or leave their work place when disasters threaten or actually occur. For a broad range of employees, be they professionals, highly skilled or even unskilled but vitally positioned employees, the issue of job or role abandonment arises when family protection is chosen over work role commitment. It is at this junction that we find research pointing toward what has been called the 'mother hen effect,' or the singular importance of mothers in influencing their spouse or themselves in work related decisions (Kirschenbaum, 2003).

Another marginalized and usually forgotten aspect in business continuity planning is the umbilical cord that ties business organizations through its employees to the community. Communities are composed of social networks that are powerful conduits for influencing decisions, one of which is in supporting staying on the job during emergencies and disasters. Here again, research lays out the parameters of how neighbors and informal community networks can affect employees attitudes toward an organization. Statements such as: 'why should I endanger myself and family when my own company doesn't spend a penny on making sure I and my family are safe!' are a powerful incentive not to go to work. On the other hand, when an employee and his/her neighbors see the company as mindful of their safety and that of the community because they invest in a variety of projects to enhance preparedness, the chances are high that these same employees will decide to maintain the integrity of the company during an emergency.

The Bottom Line

From relatively "simple" power outages or localized disasters to earth shattering pandemics, it is the employee who forms the backbone of any business's ability to survive, recover and flourish. Business continuity plans that view employees in their capacity as workers, as part of social networks, as family members and as integrated into their community have the greatest chances of actually working. Taking this perspective, it is possible to develop a quality emergency management plan that coincides with the reality of the structure of the business organization, its goals and complexity. And as any smart business person will tell you, the costs of developing such a plan is insignificant against the costs of potential physical damage, lost revenue, and court cases by employees and customers. The bottom line is that an employee based business continuity plan saves money and lives and acts to attract employees and customers who seek out smart forward looking companies who care about them and their community. CI    

Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is a founding member and Executive Senior Scientific at EDGETrack Solutions: Quality Emergency Management. He is on the executive boards of the International Research Committee on Disaster (RC-39) and the European Disaster & Social Crisis Association, published dozens of scientific and professional articles, books (Chaos Organization and Disaster Management) and appears on international, national and local media as an expert on disaster management.

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