Working During a Community Crisis

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.020 November 2002

I live and work in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, USA. On 24 October, authorities arrested two suspects in the case of the DC sniper. These suspects alledgedly shot 13 people (10 fatally).

Work continued in the midst of the community crisis caused by the DC sniper. People had jobs, IT firms had contracts, and IT work continued. IT managers had to deal with the question, "How do we keep our shop running during this crisis?"

This question may not seem important to you at this time. Ours was the only community facing a sniper, and we didn't wish to have company in our misery. Other communities, however, face crises such as a tornado, local fire, bomb threat, hazardous waste spill, or train derailment. These situations disrupt communities and affect the people you depend on to accomplish work.

As IT managers, we must address (1) our people and (2) our work. Address people first. IT depends on hardware and software, but people are far more important.

First, know your people. The manager should know something about each employee's family situation, where they live, and how and when they commute to work.

Take care in learning about your employees. Some people are reluctant to share their private lives. Respect that desire. Never request personal information via impersonal memos or e-mails addressed to "ALL." Personal information deserves personal, respectful conversations.

Second, help your people live through the crisis. People in my community were afraid; it didn't help to tell them that the probability of being shot was less than that of being hit by lightning. Allow people to be afraid. That is natural when people are dying on the streets, and denying someone's fear is unwise and can be harmful. Permit people time at work each day to discuss the crisis and their feelings. Exhortations of, "Let's get off this sniper thing and get back to work," don't help.

Help your people by doing things for them you wouldn't do in ordinary times. Several victims of the sniper were shot while buying gas. Some people ran their cars to empty and sat at home -- they didn't refill their tanks and they didn't come to work. Go to their house, pick up their car, and fill it with gas so they can come back to work.

Another suggestion is to allow people to work at home. Most community crises last a few days, weeks, or months. They are not permanent. Short-term telecommuting or simply taking home a box of work that will last people three or four days can help people immensely when they are frightened for the safety of themselves and their families.

After addressing these and other issues with your people, you can address your work. The best suggestion is to plan ahead. Decide what you will do if a person stops coming to work. Decide what you will do if a person is out of work for a week or a month. Create these plans and train people as necessary to fill in for their coworkers.

Also consider shorter-term problems. Decide what you want an employee to do if he or she is caught in a crisis-caused traffic jam in the morning. Create and communicate policies like, "If you are caught in traffic for an hour, turn around, go home, and call us." Next, follow these policies. When someone calls in, accept their explanation without question. If a manager creates a policy and gripes when someone uses it, everyone receives the message that the manager was only paying lip service to their lives.

Communities can experience crises that affect the lives of people. These affected people come into your IT shop and try to do their jobs. It is asking much of a person to concentrate, deliver high-quality products and services, and stay a few hours late when there is a crisis in the community. We should take care of our people first. Afterwards, they will take care of the work.

Dwayne Phillips

Dwayne Phillips has been a software and systems engineer with the US government since 1980. He can be reached at