Dealing With Disasters: What Role Should HR Play When One Happens?

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Sullivan has been a strategist in HR and talent management for over 30 years. His specialty is HR strategy and designing world class HR systems and tools for Fortune 200 firms. He’s never been shy about telling it like it is.

That’s why TLNT asked him to share his thinking in a video series titled “$#*!@ Dr. John Sullivan Says!” Look for these videos weekly here at TLNT.

The question comes up: when there is a natural disaster — like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or a tornado, or hurricane, or something else — what should HR do?

According to Dr. John Sullivan, HR has to be involved, but their primary role is to coordinate.

HR’s 3 responsibilities during a disaster

“We don’t have enough money or resources to manage the entire effort,” he says, “so I recommend that HR does play a role but more in coordinating getting workers to work and things like that, and not in running the whole process.”

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He notes that usually, there are three responsibilities that HR has in the area of a disaster:

  1. Identify barriers to productivity. “This is both before … and after the event …  Your job is to say ‘what is it going to take to get workers to be more productive?'” and to help cut through those barriers — physical or otherwise — that might be in the way.
  2. Find ways to get people to work. This may be getting shuttles to help them get to the office, or setting up remote working arrangements on the fly, but you need to work with managers to help get their people back up and on the job.
  3. Figure out what issues are bothering employees and getting in the way of them focusing on their job. Someone who is worried about their house flooding is not going to be particularly productive, he says, so HR should run some “if/and” scenarios to help focus on what might happen and how to handle it.



John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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