Businesses underwater. Power outages lasting a week or more. Displaced employees and inaccessible work sites. These are just a few of the issues businesses in New York and New Jersey face in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Since it often takes a disaster to remind people of what is at stake when something like this occurs, now is as good a time as any to discuss how CFOs can take steps to help their companies continue in the wake of a natural or manmade disaster. One key element of any business recovery and disaster preparedness plan is a workforce readiness plan.

With so many companies having workforces spread throughout the world, problems in one part of the world can quickly escalate and impact the entire company. For example, many of the financial services firms with headquarters in flooded lower Manhattan have operations throughout the U.S. and in multiple countries around the world.

In a survey of 142 companies conducted by human resources consultants Mercer, companies focus on several key areas when it comes to ensuring workforce readiness when disaster strikes: gathering information, assigning responsibility, taking action, communicating and assisting employees.

Information gathering. Once disaster strikes, the important thing is to gather information and get a sense of exactly what is happening. The most common sources of information companies use in these cases include local government web sites (55%) and information updates (50%) and non-governmental web sites (40%). Mercer suggests executives making personal visits to affected areas make their own assessment of the situation or, if that is not feasible, keeping in touch with senior management and employees on site and with other companies operating in the area.

Responsibility. It is important to assign clear responsibility for people-related issues. In many companies, this means HR. However, some companies assign this responsibility to multiple departments or to whomever is responsible for business continuity.

Taking action. At what point should a company take action? Some companies set a specific timeline for disruption from as little as an hour or as much as a few days before their business continuity and workforce readiness plans kick in. Companies can also decide whether to take action based on impact on employees and on revenue.

Communicating. When it comes to communicating with employees, most companies provide ongoing communication as soon as they receive new information. HR tends to be the leader when it comes to communicating about the general situation, health and safety-related information, specific work updates and any evacuation procedures.

Assisting employees. Perhaps the most important aspect of workforce readiness is making sure employees have what they need to continue working. This assistance ranges from providing support for working from home or remotely to providing direct assistance, medical supplies and monetary support to employees.

Here are some additional resources to help companies develop disaster preparedness plans.

AICPA: Disaster Response: What to Do First—A Checklist for CFOs and Controllers

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) offers a range of publications and worksheets to help support disaster preparedness for businesses, including a business continuity plan and business impact analysis.

FEMA also offers free software to help support business continuity planning.

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Wake Up Call for CFOs -- Prepare for a Quick Recovery Before Disaster Strikes

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