Keep calm and carry on: HR in a crisis

by Janie Smith01 Sep 2014
Chris Till is a handy man to have around in a crisis.

The CEO of the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand has practiced HR in some hairy situations, including storms, earthquakes and war.

“I was either in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it was the right place at the right time,” he told HRM.

Originally from the UK, Till did a law degree at Oxford University before deciding to go into what was then called personnel management.

He worked for a local authority outside of London for five years, during which time he did a post-graduate diploma and became a member of the Chartered Institute or Personnel and Development.

It was also the role in which he faced his first crisis situation – the Great Storm of 1987 which caused significant damage and casualties in England, France and the Channel Islands.

“I dealt with all the contingency planning and all sorts of things around that, including cutting branches, standing in for the chief personnel officer – everything. It was a bit of a baptism of fire.”

He moved into the private sector, working as a personnel manager for British Aerospace in the Middle East, between 1989 and 1994 – just in time for the Gulf War.

“I was there dealing with all the HR implications of the Gulf crisis – Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I was in the thick of that.

“I had to make a decision once about whether to hire one Trident aircraft or two to evacuate the wives and children of our employees there and I had to make that decision in about an hour flat. Fortunately, I made the right decision.”

He also evacuated 400 employee family members across the desert and back.

During his time in the Middle East, he met his Kiwi wife and after working in the UK and Europe for Johnson & Johnson, they moved to New Zealand.

“Initially we were in Auckland and I worked for New Zealand Post and then the New Zealand Post-DHL joint venture. Then I moved to the Christchurch City Council and I was with the council from 2008 to 2014. This was my third big crisis.”

After the deadly 2011 earthquake, the council focused on getting employees back to work and supporting them through wellbeing initiatives.  

“We increased staff engagement from the low 40s to 66% and we were also successful in getting the workforce to return back to the centre of the city and to work after the trauma and psycho-social impact of the earthquake.”

Till said the team developed a ground-breaking model to support the workforce, involving a combination of wellbeing initiatives and transformed the culture as a result of that.

“We gave people support days which were controversial at the time but what we were doing wasn’t that unique, the police were doing it as well.

“In a crisis like that, people need a lot more time off to deal with the bureaucracy and the emotional impact and the family impact. It really does bear fruit because the loyalty and commitment you get from people when you put that helping hand out to them – it’s not why you do it, but it’s repaid two or three times over as you move into the future.”

Till said the lessons he’s learned from working through crises are basic ones.
  1. “Make sure people get paid. In all three situations, the organisations ran a risk when they were dealing with such a huge crisis with no forewarning whatsoever of not paying people. After the first one, I’ve always sat on executive teams and at the appropriate time, I’ve said, ‘Have we checked to make sure that the payroll people are here and that people are actually going to get paid?’”You need to try to achieve some sense of normalcy as quickly, clearly and competently as possible.”
  2. “Whatever you do, don’t send out “gee up the workforce” messages at times like that because they just don’t appreciate it. Be honest and authentic.”
  3. “Communicate as best you can through the structure you’ve already got in the organisation. You communicate through your frontline leaders, they know their people. You reassert the role and importance of those leaders in the organisation.”
  4. “Don’t panic. Panicking is not helpful. It’s a natural human response but it doesn’t engage your brain.”  


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