How to Manage Your Business When Tragedy Strikes

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What's your option B?

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband suddenly in 2015, her colleagues weren’t sure how to react. They stayed silent to avoid adding to her pain, and Sheryl, already reeling from the shock and grief, was left feeling isolated and invisible.

It wasn’t until she opened up in a heartbreaking Facebook post that co-workers, friends and strangers began reaching out. It made for a painful, but poignant, lesson – one that the high achiever and bestselling author decided to share. Teaming up with psychology professor Adam Grant, Sheryl drew on her experience to pen a book on grief, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, to help people deal with tragedy and give those around them tools to offer meaningful support.

Sheryl Sandberg’s experience of sudden, devastating loss led to an update of Facebook’s bereavement policies, allowing staff more time off after the death of a loved one.

Not unlike her other bestselling tome, Lean In, it’s the kind of manual that should be required reading for every business owner and manager. Nobody wants to anticipate tragedy, but adversity such as death, illness or natural disasters are an unfortunate part of life. Planning for those tough times can help ensure you and your business deal gracefully and move more quickly towards your own version of Option B.

Design a disaster plan

This year alone we’ve seen cyclones, floods and acts of terror in the headlines. Not only are these events emotionally devastating, they all have the capacity to bring business to a grinding halt. That’s why it’s important to develop a disaster-recovery plan for your business. “There’s no one-size-fits-all plan,” says business lawyer Jeremy Streten, author of The Business Legal Lifecycle. “Each business is unique and you need to consider what you need to run your business and how you could continue to operate in the face of a disaster.”

That means making sure all your bases are covered, from adequate insurance to a comprehensive data back-up, and working out where and how you could set up in another location to continue trading as normal if your HQ is out of action.

Reconsider policies

Sheryl Sandberg’s experience of sudden, devastating loss led to an update of Facebook’s bereavement policies, allowing staff more time off after the death of a loved one. But it also made her rethink how she manages staff going through personal difficulties. Instead of automatically relieving them of duties, she now asks if they want to continue working, recognising that their job might be the anchor they need.

If a staff member has passed away, it’s important to offer time off to co-workers, adds Jeremy. “Every person will deal with tragedy in a different way and you need to be prepared for different responses, so let the staff deal with it in their own way, but monitor that process,” he advises. “Look out for any staff who seem to be affected more than others, talk to them and offer them formal or informal counselling if they need it.”

Make meaningful connections

Whatever the tragedy, it’s vital to keep communicating, says Jeremy. That might mean keeping clients updated if the disaster affects trading, and reaching out to next of kin and informing employees of funeral arrangements if the tragedy hits closer to home.

Bringing staff together during challenging times is also essential, adds Jeremy, whose business lost a valued employee last year. “This is a very important aspect of the grieving process – you shouldn’t make it compulsory, but you should give your staff the opportunity to talk to each other in a forum outside work,” he notes. “When we lost a staff member suddenly in 2016, we gave all of the staff (in two different locations) the option to come to an informal lunch together. Then they could have the afternoon off work if they wanted to grieve on their own. This allows each staff member to deal with the tragedy in their own way.”

Be vulnerable

The trauma of a tragedy can sneak up on managers and business owners who may feel they have to shoulder the burden on their own. Now is not the time to be stoic, says Jeremy. “Being the boss or a senior member of staff doesn’t mean you have to be impervious to the pain of a tragedy,” he explains. “Seek support, get advice, and if you can’t talk to your staff, reach out to family, friends and mentors.”

For Sheryl, finally dropping her guard and addressing the elephant in the room made all the difference to her grieving process. As she noted in her Facebook post, “I realised that to restore the closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt.”

Opening up the conversation ultimately made it easier for Sheryl to move forward and her staff to relate to their boss, breaking down the isolation she originally felt. Turns out, vulnerability breeds strength in the end.

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