Right before lunchtime, an employee reports that a coworker just opened an envelope containing a light-colored powder, which spilled onto her lap and desk. Inside the envelope is a typed note that reads: “We can hurt your people as easily as you can hurt ours!”
The affected employee runs down the hall and into the women’s restroom where she frantically tries to wash the powder off her clothing and hands. Upon consultation with representatives from security, human resources, and facilities, security calls 911, asks the employee to stay in the restroom until help arrives, evacuates the executive offices, and has employees from nearby departments on the same floor gather at an outdoor assembly point.
Unclear about the nature of the emergency, employees become anxious and upset upon seeing local police, fire, and rescue vehicles arrive, with some members donning heavy hazmat protective suits and respirators before entering the building.
The press picks up on social media chatter, and deploys news teams to the company’s location. Police hold a tight perimeter and prevent reporters, concerned family members, and others from getting near the office building. They also keep employees and others onsite from leaving until more is known about the substance and the risk of spreading a biohazard beyond the immediate scene.
Forced from their offices, the company’s leaders convene in the cafeteria to determine their hour-one and day-one priorities, as well as a strategy for communicating with the workforce, the media, and other key stakeholders.
In this situation, here’s what leaders should know and consider for their strategy:
Rapidly liaise with an incident commander and the company’s public relations representative to coordinate the response and communication around the event. Public relations and communications professionals activate risk and crisis communications within and outside the organization.
The number of psychological casualties—those responding with acute stress and somatic complaints in situations involving invisible threats such as biohazards—can greatly exceed the numbers of those actually exposed to the hazard, who have true signs and symptoms of toxic exposure.
Contact representatives from the company’s employee assistance program. Tap into local emergency behavioral health systems through county or state programs.
Enlist qualified subject matter experts on the specific hazard to help leaders gain a better understanding of the challenges ahead.
Activate business continuity plans right away, including the use of alternate worksites as the affected area is tested.
Federal law enforcement agencies, as well as local authorities, may respond to the event as a potential act of terrorism. Establishing relationships with those entities early on helps pave the way to a more effective response.
Depending on the results of field and laboratory testing of the substance of concern, the behavioral reaction of the workforce can range from concern to chaos. In the initial hours, the company’s leaders should plan for the possibility that the white powder is a harmless material used to create fear and disruption and for the possibility that the material is in fact a potentially deadly biohazard.
As the field and lab test results on the substance are anticipated, plan for high levels of anxiety and potential anger from employees and loved ones regarding a lack of information.
If the material proves to be a true biohazard, the company should work to reduce employees’ fears, address real and perceived medical and behavioral reactions, and establish when the work environment is safe and ready for the return of employees.
Terror as Workplace Violence
Terrorism can and does affect the workplace, and coworkers are often the first to recognize behavioral changes in a colleague. Using the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) workplace violence model, employees should be trained in recognizing and reporting such shifts to curb the likelihood of terror at work.
OSHA classifies workplace violence into four different types of relationships: criminal intent, customer to client, worker to worker, and personal relationship. Security practitioners should expand training to include a fifth type in the workplace violence relationship spectrum: ideological violence directed against an organization because of what they do or what they represent.
The attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2015 are prime examples of this fifth type of workplace violence. Including this type of workplace violence in prevention training for employees will help them better prepare for the possibility of an attack or threats against their organization based on their values and principles.
Workers should be on the alert for warning signs that employees are on the path to radicalization, and companies need to provide channels by which workers can report suspicious behavior.