The intention of the Foundation’s new series Awareness@Work is to shed light on how leaders within business organizations today are responding to those impacted by a crisis in the workplace. Whether one person, (customer, employee, family member) or a group of people are experiencing trauma, many organizations are initiating change in how they respond.
Awareness of how the needs of distressed people can be met within the context of the workplace has risen dramatically with the evolution of Care and Special Assistance Teams throughout the world. Once cautioned against approaching a distressed survivor due to concerns over liability, many companies today encourage employees to contact them without fear, expressing sorrow and thereby showing true compassion toward the impacted individual.
This new series features comments by program leaders as to the changes they are experiencing and challenges for the future of their programs. Gus Whitcomb, of Cathay Pacific Airways, based at the airline’s headquarters in Hong Kong, China responded to questions about the trend of awareness within his organization.
CVC: Since you started your work involving humanitarian assistance in the workplace, what changes have you noticed in how people are responding when trauma or any suffering takes place?
GW: Fortunately, I work at a company that is already very people-focused. Still, when we started this journey, our command team often arrived at the Crisis Response Centre and after a briefing started working on their checklists from a task perspective. We have now spent significant time learning to look at checklists as a tool rather than our focus. We have trained ourselves to ask how is each element of the event affecting people and how do we engage to mitigate the impact on them. It changes how you approach a response and it ensures people are always top of mind. A very simple sign on our command room door reminds everyone of our primary focus when they walk in ... "For those lost and their families.”
CVC: To what do you attribute any positive changes?
GW: The Human Services Response™ model has changed how we approach our responsibilities. And it permeates every level of our organization. Most senior management go through media training for a crisis. Ours go through family briefing training - learning how to meet family needs on a personal and group level - as well. Our local coordinators learn the core elements of tactical response. They also hear directly from people who have managed tragic events so they understand the human element - both to those touched by the tragedy and those who work the response. We want to ensure that if we say people are our focus we are walking the talk.
CVC: Where do you see the greatest challenges going forward as we try to help companies respond from compassion instead of fear of lawsuits and or questions about increasing liability by employee response?
GW: It always starts with education and a few good role models.
Bad things are going to happen, even to good companies. You need to prepare and if you are going to get it right, you need to prepare with a focus on the people who will be impacted by any event. If you expect your lawyers are going to be a challenge, have those discussions now. We have worked through a host of issues with our legal team in advance, including when and how we say we are sorry.
All this said, though, you would only see how good companies do things if you are looking for that (which is a smart tactic). So education is critical. Ensuring people begin their careers knowledgeable of what a good response looks like and how to build it into your company's DNA.
CVC: Is there anything else you want to say about the need for change?
GW: Every company experiencing a crisis ultimately learns that how they handle the humanitarian element determines whether they exit the event stronger or weaker. Unfortunately, watching crisis handling on a daily basis, it pains me to see that lesson learned over and over. We have a real opportunity to help companies get things right from the beginning with a programme that focuses on humanitarian response.
I spoke at conference about a year ago and said every event is ultimately about people. One person challenged me that an IT meltdown was actually about infrastructure and the company's ability to do business. I countered that he was making my point. Infrastructure that doesn't work means you are frustrating staff who cannot help customers who are upset that they cannot transact business. Those customers go elsewhere. So was this about a malfunctioning server or people?
Whole Brain Leaders
When a person has access to both the intuitive, creative and visual right brain, and the analytical, logical, verbal left brain, then the whole brain is working...And this tool is best suited to the reality of what life is, because life is not just logical-it is also emotional.
-Stephen Covey, author The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Leaders who are experienced in working accident responses, like Gus, have their own memories of a time when moving beyond a plane crash, involved cleaning up the site, and getting the airline back into service—survivors, including the airline’s own employees, were left to find their own way back to a future, with little if any support. And Gus’s comments in the above interview clearly show that today he works in an environment alongside leaders who understand the need for heart in business and particularly when lives are are at risk and potentially lost.
They (legal) are there to provide input to the executive team that is trying to manage it (the accident) …our priority has to be the families, the survivors and the employees.
-Robert W. Baker
Former Vice Chairman, American Airlines
In the early days before there were Care and Special Assistance Team programs within airlines, often the entire approach to survivors was dominated by the discussion of liability and claims, i.e., money. During those days, the opportunity for a human response was lost—as only half of the human brains of those involved in the settlement process were engaged.
Mr. Robert W. Baker, former Vice Chairman of American Airlines, who presided over the first formal Care Team of any airline, shared his thoughts about priorities in the aftermath of a fatal crash. During his tenure, after the team was founded, he oversaw the response to 4 fatal crashes including American Eagle Flight 4184, American Eagle Flight 3379, American Airlines Flight 965 and American Airlines Flight 1420.
All kinds of organizations have a part to play in the understanding of the (accident and the) investigation. Clearly the legal department is a part of that. Their role goes on for many years following such an event ….They are there to provide input to the executive team that is trying to manage it (the accident)…our priority has to be the families, the survivors and the employees. And only when you have that on the mend and headed toward closure that goes on a long time as well, can you worry about the legal implications of an accident. They (legal) have a very distinctive role for the families because through their work, we are able to reach an agreement sooner or later with the families to decide what to do about all of this (settlements). And as a corporation, we have to protect our assets since we work for the shareholders. But that is tomorrow, the next week, the next five years.
Having worked directly under Mr. Baker’s leadership, Gus along with many associated with the birth of this field had the privilege to see the blending of head and heart, (left and right brain) modeled in an accident response, and beyond in daily interactions. Seeing human beings as more than financial numbers on a spread sheet is indeed represented by the dedication on the door of Cathay’s command center room, “For those lost and their families.”
We have now spent significant time learning to look at checklists as a tool rather than our focus. We have trained ourselves to ask how is each element of the event affecting people and how do we engage to mitigate the impact on them.
-August E. “Gus” Whitcomb
Cathay Pacific Airways