Air Raid! This Is No Drill!

If you saw the recent movie “Pearl Harbor,” you probably walked away wondering exactly how anything like that ever could have happened. How could so many people have been asleep at the switch? Why were they not better prepared and better trained to react to the signals of a pending crisis. (Unlike us HR/Staffing professionals. Right?) Well, not unlike the Hollywood version of the actual attack, your impression is less than accurate. Everyone at Pearl Harbor was well trained and drilled in the various steps and procedures to follow in the event of an attack. But the middle managers and line supervisors had never been trained to recognize their need to take “immediate” action and how to recognize those situations where that action was required. They were trained to act only when advised by their superiors, once their superiors had “scoped out” the situation. So focused were they on the consequences of doing the “wrong thing” that they never even contemplated the greater harm of waiting to be told what to do. In their threat analysis of the fateful morning, they allowed wishful thinking and the hope of not having to make a tough decision override their common sense. They were waiting to be advised that, yes, those planes approaching with bombs were probably going to drop bombs. The only problem was that by then, everything they needed to react with was bombed, sinking, or burning. In an environment where blame is often preferred to resolution and correction, the ultimate architects of the disaster were:

  • Senior managers who discouraged independent thinking
  • Training that did not include how to analyze the transition from “normal operations” to “emergency operations” unless someone was ringing a bell
  • “One mistake” career mindsets, which do not allow that errors can be corrected and are in effect excellent training tools to prepare personnel to deal with more serious issues (and their dire consequences) when they arise.

In HR/Staffing, large amounts of money are spent (hopefully!) on teaching the fundamentals, policies and procedures, as well as the indicators of human behavior and human interaction. Onsite training, professional seminars, conferences, consulting support, virtual training and professional reading all help to arm HR/Staffing professionals with the specific skills needed to manage specific situations. But, as in golf, the difference between a “pro” and a “hacker” is that although they both know what a seven iron is, the pro knows when to use a five iron in its place, while the hacker waits for somebody to tell them which club to use. To support and improve training effectiveness, one additional tool that too few companies use is “Crisis Simulation.” I’m not just talking about a training tool to help an HR professional learn how to diffuse a potential employee relations crisis, but a simulation that shows them how to determine exactly what kind of situation they are facing, what level of seriousness it represents, and which courses of action are needed to accurately evaluate and rectify a potentially serious situation. The goal of a real crisis simulation is to assist HR/Staffing professionals prevent a routine “I need to vent” session from becoming an employee relations disaster. Most current training session simulations start with something like, “You are in your office and an employee who wants to quit comes in…” Of course, in real life, we are not always advised of the intent of the initiator in employee relations. Sometimes, they are not aware themselves. (i.e. they are “venting” over no employee parking because they are afraid to deal with an aggressive and oppressive management situation that has turned them from an effective employee into a “chronic complainer.” Our label, not theirs) In my last article, I defined “panic” as a natural, normal, and rational response to a situation or set of circumstances for which the person or persons involved is neither pre-warned nor predisposed to understand or deal with effectively. Plus, panic does not refer exclusively to foaming at the mouth while running in circles crying. Panic can redirect or manifest itself as inaction, apathy, avoidance, or unthinking commitment to the first input received or imagined in a crisis. A good metaphor is the drowning swimmer clinging to a life preserver as it floats towards the waterfall. Think back to the days you were first learning to drive, you studied skids: “In the event of a skid, take your foot off the gas, lightly pump your brakes, and slowly steer in the direction of the skid.” If you never read this before your first real skid, you probably handled the first few emergencies poorly (your arms and legs flailing around much like an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, or doing nothing while praying that tree would suddenly move ten feet to the right). On the other hand, if you had only read how to get out of a skid before your first emergency, you probably still panicked, but took fewer repetitions to improve and calm down, as you merely needed a few real skid situations to learn to recognize them when they happened and then choose the correct action. But if your “teacher” really knew what they were doing, they took you into a large open area and “induced” a few slow, harmless skids (crisis simulation) to teach you what a skid felt like when it happened. With that kind of training, you probably recovered from your first real skid while still changing tracks on your “eight track.” (Sort of a pre-CD thing that played music in the “olden days.” Hey, look it up. It really wasn’t that long ago. Really, I’m not that old.) Developing Crisis Simulations The process is simple:

  1. As senior manager, develop a series of situations that occur in everyday HR/Staffing and recruiting.
  2. Give a full and complete description, backgrounds of the “players” and any relevant situational information that will create the correct atmosphere and mindset.
  3. Also include information that is not required, and information that has little or no bearing on the issue. Sometimes in planning scenarios, we offer no opportunity for error, as we do not allow for “conflicting or irreverent” information, so often in abundance in a real emergency.
  4. At a staff meeting, without prior notice of topic or intent, verbally present the situation scenario with both a time limit to consider the situation and a time limit on the employees describing their evaluation of the corrective action required.

The idea is to present a “map” without clearly marked “roads” to follow. Teaching your staff how to pick the correct “destination” and the “correct route” is the critical aspect of simulation training. As manager, make sure you:

  • Allow your employees to complete their portion of the exercise, written and verbal, without interruption, input or comment from you or any other member of your team (like “What makes you think that would work?” or “What are you, stupid or something?”).
  • Remember, there is no “scoring” beyond encouraging intelligent, well thought-out response and reaction under the pressure of time. In most situations there is no 100% correct, or 100% incorrect approach. The only true failure is no action or “stalling.”
  • Keep to the time factors involved in the exercise. Many a terrific solution comes too late in the crisis situation or would require too much time to develop and implement to be of any real help. (Captain of the Titanic after hitting the iceberg: “Hey, let’s buy more lifeboats!)
  • Try changing and updating the information of the scenario as solutions are presented to create a “living situation.” (The employee listens to your recommendation and states, “Hey, it isn’t only the parking that stinks here!”)

Scenarios can include:

  • A situation involving a first phone call to a “cold candidate” going nowhere
  • Advising an employee of questionable stability of a pending “Administrative Action”
  • Reluctant offer negotiations, developing clues to hidden agendas
  • Controlling belligerent hiring managers and uncooperative interview teams
  • Potential office unrest and/or potential office violence situations
  • Sexual harassment and/or hostile work environment situations
  • Hostile exit interviews

These can be “routine” issues that you feel are not handled well (it isn’t always about disasters and emergencies; sometimes it is the simple stuff as well). Choose everyday topics, but don’t be afraid to also drill your staff on “doomsday” topics. For a true manager, i.e. a professional who is working to train their own people to one day replace them, it is also an excellent way to expose your team to the issues they will potentially face in your job. Do not let their first crisis involving human health or life be their first experience dealing with a potentially “one mistake” issue. Drill and prepare with simulations. Crisis Simulation Instructions Here are some sample crisis simulation instructions:

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  1. Please read the entire simulation.
  2. Look at your watch and allow yourself only two minutes to analyze the scenario and consider your options (in a crisis, a flawed solution today may be better than a perfect solution tomorrow).
  3. Spend no more than two minutes writing your solution. First attempt should be your only attempt.
  4. Your solution should contain:
    • Situation. Your analysis of the “initiators” issues.
    • Mission. Your “outcome goal.”
    • Execution. The immediate steps you will take to control the situation and seek to resolve the issues.
    • Administration and Logistics. Those tools, resources, or other staff members you will seek out for after-action support.
    • Communications. Those “checkpoints” you will establish to insure, after action occurs, how you will communicate your actions up and down the management chain of command, and exactly what communications you are required to initiate based on the complaint or issue uncovered.
    • Questions. What other issues beyond the immediate one do you feel this crisis indicates? (Controlling this crisis comes first, but then, let’s determine if it indicates “bigger issues” that you must be prepared to confront and resolve.)

This Is a Drill, Repeat, This Is a Drill Here’s an example of a crisis you could use in simulations: Background You are the HR/Staffing Manager for a customer services group of 500, organizationally broken-down into six teams, in a financial services company located in a major metropolitan city. You have a staff of three recruiters, a human resources specialist, and a human resources administrator. Each of your recruiters supports two teams within the group. To keep your “hand in the game” you still support the customer services group VP with his open managerial positions. Each of your recruiters manages an average of 30 open requisitions between the two teams they support at any time. In the past, during periods of imbalance, you have adjusted support to have recruiters supporting each other, but you still had the same recruiter consistently identified as “lead” for their designated teams. The overall impression of your hiring managers is you run a good shop. You are not seen as a magician or a miracle worker, but your HR/Staffing team is not considered “useless and helpless.” You have a reasonably up-to-date recruiting and HR environment with online staffing tools and online inter and intra office communication. You would like more success stories with the team managers, but the VP likes your efforts for him, and has some opinions regarding his managers that he has shared with you.

  • Player #1: Team Manager A. This manager is new to the company and part of the VP’s efforts to change the staffing direction of the group. She is probably overqualified for the position as it is currently defined, but based on the VP’s assessment of what needs to be done within the group in general and her team in particular, he felt it was an “investment hire.” You were not involved in this hire other than getting the offer letter out after the verbal was already released. So far your relationship has been cordial, but the new hire already has a reputation for being demanding and critical of her team’s hiring quality. In addition, the turnover in her team has been higher since she has come onboard. The rumor is that her team thinks she was hired to “get rid of them.” This rumor was delivered to you by the team’s designated recruiter.
  • Player #2: Recruiter B. This recruiter has been with the team for two years. He is a reasonably competent recruiter who probably could spend less time on Mondays talking about football. His workload has remained more or less constant and higher than his peers. On several occasions, including now, he has had assistance from the other recruiters based on their lighter requisition loads. You have hinted that if he could boost his monthly closing, his overall requisition load would go down. He has hinted that if this manager’s turnover would average out, he could get ahead “of the game.” The other team manager he supports, who has 12 years with the company in the same position, likes him. The team manager prior to the new manager in your office had no complaints either. You hired him as your first act as a new manager. In a market of few qualified recruiters, he was not a “water walker,” but he was also not “better than nothing.” Somewhere in-between.

The Crisis You are returning from a meeting and have not been in your office or able to check voice or emails for one hour. You notice Senior Team Manager A leaving a note on your door. She sees you and takes down the note and enters your office and is sitting, waiting for you as you reenter your office. The team manager informs you that she wants the recruiter assigned to her team removed from her group and wants you to further consider his termination. Before you can open your mouth, you notice the team recruiter in question, Recruiter B, walking up to your office. He sees who you are with and immediately turns around, ducks into his cubicle, and with the manager still insisting that you take charge of what she considers a recruiting crisis, as yet undefined by anything other than her outrage, you now notice your line is ringing with the accused recruiter’s name showing up on your caller ID screen. As you decide whether or not to answer, the phone stops ringing, and then starts again, stops and starts again. You ask the team manager to excuse you while you take care of the phone. Answering the phone, Recruiter B immediately says, “I do not know what she has said, but I have got you talk to you now! You are my manager, you have to support me!” The team manager senses what’s going on and, while you are still on the phone, stands up and says, “I have an email, two urgent voicemails, and now this personal visit to your office invested in this issue already (realistically a period of 60 minutes). I did not come here to be ignored. If you do not have the time to meet with me over an urgent issue, I will go to the VP and see if he is free!” Now what HR Guru? This is Part One of a two-part scenario. Please develop the steps you would take to regain control of this situation and identify the information you need and how you would uncover it to develop a rational sense of what is going on. The “school solution” will appear in two weeks. If you would like to submit a brief response to me, I will take excerpts from readers and include them in the following article. Please keep to the spirit of the exercise:

  • Only allow two minutes to consider the situation.
  • No more than two minutes to write your first and only solution.

Time is the issue here. In a vacuum, with unlimited time and unlimited recourses, one of an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite amount of typewriters will ultimately type the Shakespearian play “King Lear” word for word without a typo. But in our finite world of HR/Staffing, we are usually pressed for time. Sometimes the crisis does not allow time for a panicked HR/Professional to seek consensus, or “test drive” an idea. After all, in the frontline world of HR/Staffing, like that of the Coast Guard, “Semper Paratus” is as much our motto as theirs ? and sometimes a life or lives can be on the line. In fact, sometimes your own! Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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