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The first time Rachel Swearingen packed her children and things into her car to flee a hurricane, she had no choice.

Living in a mandatory evacuation zone, the mother of two had to quickly decide what of their belongings were worth trying to save and bring with them for the drive north as Hurricane Irma plummeted toward Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

As she sat in hours of traffic on Florida’s congested interstates, she worried if they’d be able to find enough gas to get to Georgia where they could stay with family. She navigated back roads and pieced together alternative routes, finding gas well off the beaten path. 

At that time, Swearingen worked in a co-located office environment. The entire company was experiencing the same thing that she was. Her colleagues and managers were going through their own versions of the same crisis, the company at large providing support where they could and communicating company wide messages across multiple channels. 

In the end, the hurricane veered south and didn’t hit the St. Petersburg area she called home. The ordeal, however, was enough to encourage her to move inland, away from the coastal flooding and storm surge that would occur should that area experience a major hurricane. 

The predicament facing Swearingen and her fellow employees is not uncommon or unique to Florida. Pick a point on a map of the world and what you’ll find is an area where, most likely, climate change is driving events that can displace employees and, in the future, create climate refugees. 

Whether it’s hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, extreme droughts, flooding, blizzards or the expansion of areas prone to tornadoes, climate change is going to drive mass migration and social upheaval over the coming decades. 

HR sits at the intersection of businesses and the people who make them fly or flop, meaning it will have an obligation to serve both people and company leadership in times of crisis.

So naturally, one would think that considering climate change’s impact on the workforce, the business and the locations it operates in would be a top concern, right? 

“No, and it’s interesting because it seems like everything out there is either freezing or it’s on fire,” says Paul Falcone, author of a new book titled “The First Time Manager: Leading Through Crisis.” “Venice will soon be underwater and in other places, there’s no lake where there used to be a lake. It’s becoming more extreme everywhere.”

Why Is Climate Change Not A Top Priority For HR?

Bear with me here, I know that thinking about topics like climate change can become exhausting. If this were a presentation, I’d look to infuse a bit of humor right about here, so here’s a bit of comedy to help you out. 

@kristentoomeychicago Modern Parenting * * * #parents #parenting #genz #comedy #humor #moms #chicago #standup #standupcomedy ♬ original sound - KristenToomeyChicago

Like comedian Kristen Toomey trying to get her kids to do their homework, I realize what I’m asking. I’m asking people operations professionals to think about a threat that day-to-day is a threat they can keep an eye on in the future. Because right now, there is no shortage of crises to manage. 

“There’s a numbing effect to all of this,” Falcone said. “Covid took up so much of everyone’s oxygen, there wasn’t much oxygen for anything else after. Everyone is exhausted, their wires are frayed and exposed. People are acting kind of weird because they’re afraid and they’re overwhelmed. This Covid reintegration phase isn’t going well. You’ve got supply chain problems, inflation, there’s talent scarcity and people are going on strike. The craziness doesn’t end.”

With that in mind, no one is blaming HR for not looking down the road and seeing the obstacles they’ll face in 15-30 years. Getting through tomorrow is a big enough challenge. 

But for a moment, let’s imagine that despite all of the changes and social upheaval from ideological conflicts, technology development and unfettered capitalism that we'll eventually face, we all still find ourselves in jobs, with bills and taxes to pay and profit margins to keep an eye on in the long term future. 

The issues presented by climate change will continue to come to the surface in the coming years. When they do, success will be measured in more significant ways than talent engagement or retention, though those will likely still be a factor. Instead, things like employee safety and loss of productivity will take center stage. 

It’s not just extreme weather events either. Cost centers will be impacted by the steady changes that result from climate change such as higher cooling and heating costs depending on the season. 

“If your sustainability efforts focus on energy consumption, how are you thinking about using energy more wisely?” says Rita Trehan, founder and CEO of DARE Worldwide, a Global Transformation consultancy. “The climate is going to change and thinking about little things like advising people on what they should be wearing or shouldn't be wearing at work during those times can make a difference and help people understand how they can contribute to lowering the costs of energy consumption.”

Changing the office dress code to account for summer heat sounds simple enough, but what about the bigger issue of society itself. Business plays a leading role in shaping cultural norms and spreading awareness around larger issues. We’ve seen it in recent years with everything from racism to Covid safety and deforestation.  

“It isn't just the workplace that organizations have a responsibility for,” Trehan said. “Somebody's home life and where they are in the communities that they live in is a responsibility as well. You need to have some sense of commitment to the communities which your employees come from.”

As for the bigger, more extreme environmental related crisis that will grab the headlines, the typical approach is to wait and see. It’s not an approach Falcone advocates for. 

He recalls a time during his stint as Head of International Human Resources for Paramount Pictures, when the avian flu outbreak occurred. Executives were focused on asking what everyone else in the industry, be it Sony, Disney or Warner Brothers, was doing rather than brainstorming solutions themselves. 

“The way I looked at it was I don’t care what they’re doing,” Falcone said. “I’m going to be the first domino, I will set the pace for everybody else.”

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Lessons To Learn 

Some industries are already dealing with complications from extreme weather events when they occur and can provide lessons from the front lines, so to speak.

Take healthcare, where employees' obligations to patients mean they have to work in extreme or unusual circumstances, even when it comes at the expense of their families.

“In health care, everything is under a microscope a little bit more, so we can take the learnings from that industry and map them onto others,” Falcone said.

In his time as the CHRO for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, a charitable organization that offers living assistance to employees from the film and television industry who have few resources, he saw this play out during wildfire season as their assisted living campus had to be evacuated. 

They moved patients to nearby hotels and coordinated family pick ups where they could. The staff had to be present, despite the demands of their own home life. 

“You have to talk that stuff out,” Falcone said. “It's going to be different for every organization or industry, but in our case we needed RNs, the nurse had to come. If that means that they have to bring their child, then we have to take care of the child. That may include their dogs and cats. So what are we going to do? The talent scarcity is kind of exacerbating all these problems.”

Scenario planning plays a big part in preparedness for any crisis and climate change is no different. For Falcone, this was a normal thing as it has to be done annually as a healthcare organization in California. 

“We have different committees that handle this,” he said. “You've got your safety committee, you've got your disaster planning committee, you have an incident command center and you have these role plays that you have to do so that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities in an emergency.”

Scenario Planning

There are a variety of approaches and models for businesses to explore, but Trehan has some advice as you start to connect the dots. 

“You want to pick criteria that are really specific to a particular region or a country you’re active in or that a business you partner with is,” Trehan said. “And then look at what's the probability of these events happening? What are some of the indicators that will tell us when things are changing and then monitor that on an ongoing basis. Maybe that’s a scale of red, green, yellow, but recognizing that you constantly are monitoring and updating that.”

One way to think about this is a model often used in supply chain management, a technique known as a PESTLE (mapped below) analysis. This model is made up of six parts, all of which will be touched by climate change. 

  • Political - shifts in the political landscape can impact how and where a company does business through new regulations or sanctions. Political changes in other countries can impact suppliers, talent sourcing and market volatility. As climate change impacts different parts of the world, the politics of those places are likely to see significant change with it. 
  • Environmental - the most obvious connection to climate change, environmental refers to changes to the physical landscape and the threats they pose. Water scarcity in some regions will drive mass migration, panic and in some cases violent conflicts that impact people across the world. 
  • Social - research has shown that climate change will disproportionately impact certain populations, many of whom are employees at your organization today. Being aware of people’s needs and how to support them will be part of the story told about your organization in the future. 
  • Technological - while we are more connected than ever thanks to technology, climate related events can impact how people interact with technology and create scenarios where access to it becomes difficult. In a world where we are increasingly reliant on gadgets to remain connected to our work, planning for technology needs in any situation is critical. 
  • Legal - if politics, social circumstances and technological infrastructure are altered, you can bet there is an opening for legal ramifications for mistakes that are made. Being legally prepared for evolving situations is difficult, but necessary. 
  • Economic - in climate related events, the hit to the bottom line can be significant. While people remain the top priority, it won’t be lost on leaders what the cost of these events is to doing business. Even with the best insurance policies in place, making the business resilient to climate related events can be difficult. 

“You want this to be informed by the research and data that exists out there,” Trehan said. “Engaging with the local communities, the people that are actually doing the work, the people that are actually affected by changing scenarios and actually understanding what they are feeling or seeing happening within their workplace or in their communities.”

After you have created scenarios, it’s time to play them out. These are the role plays Falcone mentioned previously. 

“Do a tabletop exercise,” he says. “I don't care where you work, or who you are, just do that role play, and who's going to take over the roles and who's going to be responsive?  Build an incident command team and assume that the CEO is not going to be available. Then who's going to play what role?”

Communicating Through Crisis

Communication is key during times of crisis. Employees shouldn’t feel left in the dark about how you can offer support, where the company stands in terms of business continuity and what your expectations are around their work if they’re impacted.

Leaders and managers cannot communicate too much during times of crisis. Feeling like leadership has a firm grasp on the situation creates a level of ease within employees that they can’t always find in local authorities or governments. 

“What that communication is going to sound like is part of the exercise you need to go through,” Falcone said. “How does your culture come through in the tone? If it’s a text that comes up on your phone, what does it say? As much as you can, automate this stuff. That's the easiest way to keep your people in the loop, because they're afraid and unsure, should I come to work or not come to work?”

These communications may take a variety of forms, be it texts, robo calls or in the case of patients and staff within a facility, less technologically advanced methods of communication may be necessary.

“If there’s no electricity, we may have to put fliers up, we might have to walk around to the residents and patients rooms with a mentality of we're going to talk about these key points,” Falcone said. 

The Business Case

With everybody burnt out and frustrated already, is anyone thinking about these issues? 

According to the Conference Board’s annual survey, the answer is yes. Around half of global CEOs say climate change is already an issue that is impacting their business. The question then becomes how is that being communicated down to the rest of the organization? 

Falcone thinks that’s a significant challenge right now. While business issues related to climate change are something companies need to move on soon, there may be a little more time needed between that moment and Covid. 

“People are at a breaking point right now,” he said. “Even though CEOs and business owners know what they want to do, they're having a hard time getting there, because even bringing it up, when you're already feeling like you're at 110%, you've got no oxygen left. It's like now what do you want us to do? There's got to be a little grass that grows between us and the pandemic and we're not there yet."

While sustainability efforts are important for your employer brand, it's important that improving your brand isn't what drives them. Trehan believes that with the right organization and a clear focus progress can be made, but there’s no room for fluff or trying to boil the ocean.

“It can’t be you saying everybody else has got this policy in place, so we're going to have this policy in place,” Trehan said. “Forget the nice glossy window dressing. Really think about what's important to your organization. It's impossible for any company to tackle it all. Laser focus on what is going to make the biggest difference for your business and the communities you serve, because you have a responsibility to help the communities in which you are actually either present, sell to, and or a part of. Put that lens on your investments.”

The Plight Of Displaced Employees

Five years after Hurricane Irma, Swearingen found herself once again packing her family’s things into two cars. This time, a fiance and four pets would be making the journey with them.

While she had moved inland, her new home was surrounded by a forest of tall oak trees. Valued for the shade they provide from the hot Florida sun, she was now concerned that her children’s bedrooms would be turned into a lumber mill if those trees came crashing down. Once again, they headed north to Georgia to stay with family. 

This time, however, she worked for a fully remote company. Her manager lived halfway across the world, but was aware of her predicament and was supportive. Nonetheless, the company held expectations around her work getting done. 

“In Georgia, I had reliable power and internet access, so I was able to keep working,” Swearingen said. “But it wasn’t easy because I spent most of my time worrying about what was happening with my friends, my family and neighbors back home.”

During her first evacuation experience, everyone at her company was experiencing the same thing, meaning all workflows and business operations were disrupted. Essentially, in house operations ceased, giving employees the freedom to cope with the impending threat of the storm however they needed to. 

In this case, her fully remote employers were understanding, but few adjustments were made. Things went on business as usual for everyone else at the company. Despite loving remote work life, Swearingen found herself longing for the type of support she’d experienced previously. 

“One thing I wish they had changed was the heavy focus on monthly production quotas,” she said. “That hurricane came through right at the end of September. Trying to get all that work done while stressing about this hurricane was difficult. I know I wasn’t able to do my best work at that time, but I also felt like I couldn’t miss this quota for fear of being penalized somehow.”

For the latest storm to pass through the area of Florida she calls home, Swearingen stayed put, confident that it wasn’t severe enough to really threaten their home. If it were, she intends to pack their things and go through it all again. 

“Hurricanes are a part of living in Florida,” she said. “But if it’s forecasted to be a really strong storm, I will leave again. Safety comes first.”

By David Rice

David Rice is a long time journalist and editor who specializes in covering human resources and leadership topics. His career has seen him focus on a variety of industries for both print and digital publications in the United States and UK.