Effective family management during a crisis

Published: October 5, 2018 | By Mike Blyth

Mike Blyth holds a Masters Degree in Security and is studying for his Doctorate in Security Risk Management, with a focus on NGO organisational resiliency. Mike is the Chief Operating Officer of Risk and Strategic Management, Corp and has supported over 350 NGOs operate in remote and challenging environments. He is also a published author on security and crisis topics with Wiley and Sons and is a guest speaker for Humentum, ASIS and other forum groups.

 

The humanitarian aid and development sectors are unique as their very nature calls their members to seek out and willingly head towards danger, while most people avoid or withdraw from unstable or conflict-affected environments. As such, organisations in these sectors often face complex and impactful threats to their operations, and more critically their people, requiring a mature and effective strategy of dealing with families during a crisis. The need for effective family support is found frequently within a crisis response, especially where the root cause of a crisis is associated with either a security or safety incident. While most managers bring both experience and competency in their day-to-day work, the complexity and highly emotive nature of family engagement during fast-burn, confused, and often high-stress situations can easily overwhelm the best leadership teams. Mismanagement of such situations through errors of judgement or miscommunication can cause the family of the impacted staff member even greater distress and pose significant reputational and legal risks to the organisation.

The importance of effective family support cannot be overestimated, not only to protect the interests of staff and their loved ones (arguably the most important goal) but also to safeguard the hard-earned reputation of the organisation. Where family support fails, organisations quickly lose credibility and trust which can be difficult, if not impossible, to recover. In addition, litigation risks, operational disruptions, withdrawals of donor funding, the impacts of non-recoverable costs, and brand damage can be catastrophic.

There are many scenarios which would prompt a dialogue between a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and the family of a staff member, such as detention, kidnap, sexual violence, sickness or injury, and death. It is also not uncommon for family members to reach out to an NGO if they witness alarming reports in the news and are unable to reach their loved one. Crisis situations can be complicated, impacting large numbers of staff who might represent a diverse cross-section of nationalities and cultures, each with their own unique needs and expectations. To exacerbate the complexity of family support, events often occur at a place remote from the leadership team, causing disjointed communications which quickly lead to confusion and frustration. Given the common diversity of staff in NGOs, response teams must also grasp both the differences and similarities in how the family of an international or national staff member is engaged. Language barriers, religious and cultural differences, as well as time zones and geographic distances, can undermine what on the surface may appear to be a straightforward response, turning a problem into a catastrophe.

While family support is an important element in the management of a crisis, it rarely forms the primary focus of the crisis management team. Rather, it is usually a peripheral activity driven by the root cause of a crisis or its implications. While not all crises are the same in terms of severity or impact, common concerns include risks to people (and by extension their families), donor expectations, the integrity of operational and program-based deliverables, the security of assets, facilities and information, and not to be dismissed, the hard-earned reputation of the organisation. Each of these issues competes for attention because they can all impact the ability of an organisation to survive a crisis, i.e. organisational resilience. Focused energy on any one aspect must be prioritised against immediate, medium and long-term needs; each of which is shaped by both individual and organisational priorities. Because every crisis is in itself unique and sometimes unpredictable, incidents can quickly create extraordinary situations which can easily overwhelm the experience, knowledge, and resources of a leadership team.

Given the complexity and importance of family support, it is important that organisations codify knowledge and best practice through policies, plans, guidelines, and protocols, and then operationalise these through well-trained family support officers. Furthermore, these representatives must be appropriately equipped and empowered to fulfil this critical function. At the same time, organisations must also be aware of the need to recover operations in order to meet the needs of donors and beneficiaries. As such family support is but one (albeit a critical) cog within a larger crisis management response. The binary role of caring for the family while concurrently protecting the interests of the organisation can cause conflicting priorities as the family support officer seeks to act as the bridge to communicate the needs, expectations, and concerns from the family to the leadership team, while at the same time relating guidance and information from the leadership team to the family. At times, these priorities may appear to be different, but in the majority of instances, they are not. To further complicate the role, the family support officer is rarely the final decision-maker or expert in all areas addressing the family’s needs. Rather, the family support officer commonly acts as a coordinator between organisational stakeholders and the family, addressing the current status of their loved one, the measures being taken to meet the needs of the situation, the benefits the family is entitled to, and what will – and critically – will not be provided.

The family support officer is not typically a defined position within the organisation, and indeed, it is often a supplementary role which may be undertaken by human resources staff. Alternatively, the role may be assumed by a manager who is in closest proximity to the family – whether from a geographic, situational, or relationship perspective. Given the highly nuanced, complex and stressful nature of this role, it should not be given to someone with limited knowledge and experience of crisis management. Rather, the role should be based on the person best suited to fulfil the goals of family support, whether this is based on personality, position, seniority, experience or language; especially when selecting a national family support officer. Best practice needs to be determined and reflected within codified documents so as to minimise the potential for serious mismanagement, and this distilled and transferable body of knowledge is needed to operationalise family support through training and exercising. Given the prominent place of family support within many forms of crisis, this training should be formalised and legitimised through recognised certification and qualifications.

Training, certifying and the regular exercising of staff to fulfil a family support function builds staff members’ confidence for when they are called upon and optimises this aspect of a crisis response. It also demonstrates to internal and external stakeholders an organisation’s commitment to caring for staff members and their families. Ultimately, the ability of an organisation to emerge from a crisis with its reputation and business interests intact is often down to its ability to not only ‘do the right thing’ but also be seen to ‘do the right thing’ when engaging with impacted families. By training staff to fulfil a family support role before a crisis occurs, an NGO can do both.