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Civil Unrest and Employees: When Community Concerns Become Workplace Challenges

By Terri Howard, FEI Behavioral Health:

Easy access to the web and its multiple social platforms gives anyone a megaphone to publicly voice their opinions on social issues. Likes, shares and retweets quickly turn single statements into viral posts, offering the opportunity to easily organize protests or large gatherings in response to the topic de jour.

When mass acts such as demonstrations, riots, or strikes occur and participants become hostile towards authorities, it is known as civil disorder or civil unrest. Hostility from crowds makes it difficult for authorities to maintain public safety, causing the chaos to overflow into the streets and nearby businesses. Business continuity professionals know how to handle crises in the workplace, but crises outside the workplace can be harder to control while having an equally dramatic effect on employees.

Understanding Civil Unrest
Civil unrest is a broad term typically used by law enforcement to describe disruptive situations — a riot, protest, or strike — caused by a group of people. These gatherings are often fueled by disagreements around politics; racial, gender or income inequality; discrimination; or health care issues. While many of these gatherings begin peacefully, they can quickly turn violent and, as witnessed on the nightly news, can lead to arrests, injuries and destruction of the community and nearby businesses.

There are three levels of civil unrest:

  • The lowest level of civil unrest is when people turn on their own neighborhoods. This type of unrest is spontaneous and localized, primarily impacting those who live, work, or travel in the immediate area.
  • The next level of unrest is focused on a single area where protestors deliberately target a business district, facility, transportation system, or an organization to impose maximum disruption. This type of unrest occurred in 1999 during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle; hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers in downtown Seattle were impacted. This level of protest requires planning and organization to choose a target and deliberately disrupt the normalcy of daily life and business.
  • The final level of civil unrest causes a disruption at a regional or state level, affecting everyone in the region. This also can expand to a national or even international level.

Examining Recent Events
Racial tensions have been growing across the United States over the past decade. In Milwaukee, Wis., protests broke out after the officer-involved shooting of Sylville Smith in 2016. While the protest began calmly with a peaceful march, the scene soon became violent when a number of protesters began setting fires along their path. Many businesses were raided, damaged, or destroyed during the ensuing riots. Local businesses and their employees were directly impacted by the event, prompting elevated conversations within the workplace and causing a perceived disconnect with the community.

After the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, thousands of individuals protested in 25 cities across the United States. While many of these were peaceful, unrest broke out in Oakland, Calif. and Portland, Ore. In Portland, the peaceful assembly quickly turned destructive as the crowd grew and angry protestors took to the streets. In the end, property and business damages were estimated to cost over $1 million and more than 100 people were arrested.

While these events may seem isolated, they are not. Protests continue to happen across the country, impacting communities and businesses along the way. In both Oakland and Portland, businesses were caught in the crossfire between the community and social unease, finding themselves as collateral damage in a larger culture war.

Workplace Impact of Civil Unrest
Political, social, and cultural issues — from Black Lives to Blue Lives; from #MeToo to “zero-tolerance” — are topics of regular conversation and debate. It can be difficult for employees to leave their personal concerns at home, especially if they or a loved one are actively involved in civic engagement. Commenting on a co-worker’s political preferences is one matter, but when family and friends become involved in situations where social conflict and the chance of physical altercation is high, the emotional stress can affect employees’ collaboration, relationships, and productivity.

To help employees cope, employers can consider implementing an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP will help alleviate stress and worry, connect employees with the resources they need to manage their mental health, and help prevent potential violence before it occurs.

In addition to emotional and relational impact, issues in the community also can pose a financial risk to businesses. When civil unrest leads to property damages, businesses are often forced to delay or cease operations. It also puts businesses at a higher risk for stolen inventory. Riots and protests often delay traffic patterns and shut down major roads and highways, preventing employees from getting to or from work. In many cases, riots result in curfews to prevent further damages and keep the public safe. However, these curfews force businesses to close earlier than a typical work day and interrupt normal operations. Damages, stolen property, reduced hours, and staff shortages put a financial strain on organizations, especially small businesses that may need loans to cover losses and are subject to higher insurance premiums in the wake of rioting.

The Role and Responsibilities of Employers
Although civil unrest is not a common crisis, employers need to be prepared for the possibility that disruption in the community or the reaction to a nationwide event will follow employees into the workplace. While all employees are entitled to express themselves, it is important to do so in a respectable and considerate way at work. In order for employers to responsibly navigate these situations, they can take the following steps to ensure employee concerns are acknowledged without evolving into open conflict or internal disruption:

  • Set the tone for appropriate behavior in the workplace: Managers should exemplify respectful behaviors towards co-workers, peers and customers to set the bar for appropriate actions and language.
  • Create and encourage a culture of diversity and inclusion: A diverse workforce creates a stronger sense of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding of fellow employees as well as the community.
  • Establish policy and process for conflict resolution and problem solving amongst employees: Managers should implement conflict resolution policies and processes to create a sense of safety in the workplace and provide an outlet for employees to report incidents should they feel the need.
  • Adhere to regulatory language of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): OSHA guidelines assure organizations offer safe workplaces for all employees including during times of civil unrest.
  • Implement a business continuity plan for civil unrest: Having a plan in place helps organizations remain calm during a chaotic situation. A business continuity plan should detail how the business will respond to a variety of situations. In terms of civil and community unrest, consider coordinating with local first responders and fellow businesses to determine the best course of action during crises such as riots.

While many employers may have a “this could never happen to me or my community” mindset, it’s essential to realize civil unrest can happen anywhere at any time. In order to be prepared for the unpredictable, employers should take action to implement policies and have plans in place.

Understanding the community, developing processes to address a variety of “what if” scenarios, and exemplifying appropriate behavior will help employers maintain a civil workplace and squash conflicts before they get out of hand. Partnering with an EAP also helps employers consult on workplace issues and assess policies and procedures, ensuring they are doing their best to offer a welcoming, safe, and inclusive work environment for all employees.

FEI has a 40-year history in enhancing workforce resiliency by offering a full spectrum of solutions, from EAP and organizational development to workplace violence prevention and crisis management. One of the most successful social enterprises in America, FEI is wholly owned by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a national network of social sector organizations working to achieve its vision of a healthy and equitable society.

About the Author: Terri Howard is a senior director of crisis management at FEI. She is responsible for working with corporate clients to ensure companies are prepared for, can respond to and recover from a crisis incident. She also coordinates the people support and psychological first aid services for those impacted by a crisis incident and is experienced in developing drills and exercises aimed at testing current crisis management plans and procedures. Howard has contributed to several international standards and guidelines on crisis management and workplace violence prevention, including ASIS and the FBI. 


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