Business Obligations During Natural Disasters

As Hurricane Sandy bears down on Atlantic City, New York, and (eventually) parts of eastern Canada, thousands of businesses large and small are faced with dilemmas related to doing business before, during, and after a potential state of disaster. Certainly some businesses won’t have a choice, as flooding either wipes them out or makes access impossible. The NYSE and Nasdaq have both made the unusual move of staying closed for the day today (Monday).

But others will have hard choices to make, and no easy formula for making such choices is at hand.

Choice #1 pertains to the basic issue of staying open. Here, business owners need to balance the safety and security of their employees and buildings, on one hand, with the needs of their customers on the other. The weight given to the needs of customers must of course depend on just what you’re selling. If you sell water and flashlight batteries, a sense of social obligation ought to keep you open ‘as long as possible.’

The second choice has to do with the closely related question of whether businesses should require employees to work before, during, and after a natural disaster. Sometimes being at work will pose risks to health and safety, and sometimes the risk lies in getting to work. The transit closures that go with severe weather are a factor here, too. Lack of access to public transit can make it difficult, and sometimes dangerous, for employees to get to work. But then again, in some cases employees — especially ones earning an hourly wage — will prefer to work, in which case telling them to go home may be overly paternalistic.

The third question is about prices. In a reasonably free market, prices tend to go up when goods are scarce and when demand is high. And natural disasters have a way of both limiting supply and raising demand. As supply chains get cut off, it may be reasonable for businesses to raise prices somewhat in order to cover additional costs. But stores need to be careful to stay on the right side of the law — most jurisdictions have anti-price gouging laws that put limits on just how much you can raise prices in the wake of disaster.

All three choices involve difficult decisions about how to balance the competing interests of various groups. But in terms of fundamental motivation, it’s also worth pointing out that staying in business as long as possible can be a great way to build goodwill. A business that is there for its community in times of crisis is likely to reap rewards for a long time to come.

The business I happen to work for — Ryerson University — is an unusual kind of business when it comes to questions like these. I asked our VP Administration & Finance, Julia Hanigsberg, about the criteria Ryerson uses to decide whether and when to close.

“The safety of our community is the primary consideration on whether to close the university or cancel classes during extreme weather conditions or other emergency situations,” Hanigsberg told me. “Our Integrated Threat and Risk Assessment team monitors the situation by scanning publicly available sources and consulting with expertise available in the broader public sector about road conditions, availability of public transit, information from Emergency Services etc.”

One particularly interesting point that Hanigsberg made had to do with the fact that, really, the university never fully shuts down. Hanigsberg says: “Unlike most businesses, even when we ‘close’ the university is operational 24/7 with students in residence, research labs operational etc.”

The same is true for hospitals, of course, as well as other public services like shelters. But the same is true for businesses such as hotels and kennels and airports. Anything charged with the 24/7 sheltering and feeding of humans or animals — is unlikely to shut down entirely. The same obviously goes for essential services, such as police, fire, and ambulance. They’re not businesses in the traditional sense, but they face the same dilemmas, albeit with a much stronger public service impetus pushing them to keep the wheels turning.

The inability to shut down entirely brings special obligations, of course. For starters, it puts a premium on planning for disasters. Businesses that can’t shut down need to have plans in place, and need to train employees both in safeguarding their own health and safety, and in looking out for the customers who may be entrusted to their care in the most trying, and ethically challenging, of circumstances.

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