Canada: When Terror Strikes, How Should Employers Respond?

Last Updated: November 6 2014
Article by David K. Law

As the world knows, on Oct. 22, 2014, a Canadian soldier was murdered in a violent attack on national institution in Ottawa. The incident culminated in a blaze of gunfire in the halls of Parliament while rumours of a second gunman kept the city on "lockdown" for hours afterwards.

Employers have legal and moral obligations to try and keep their people safe. Oct. 22, tested readiness for a crisis, in particular for an incident of terrorism. Old lessons were applied and perhaps, new lessons were learned.

Cooperation with Security and First Responders

On Oct. 22, virtually every building, public or private in Ottawa, went into lockdown. This was to keep people off the streets during the hours when police hunted for the suspected second shooter. The absence of pedestrian traffic eliminated a huge risk and distraction for those authorities. Some questions:

  • Who in your organization tracks public authority guidance? This can be as easy as following the police Twitter feed, but someone has to do it and it shouldn't be random.
  • How do you convey that to people? (see "Communications" below)
  • Can you order people to stay? The short answer is "no", individuals are allowed to make their own personal choices unless those choices endanger others.
  • Inside Parliament, the lockdown went on for many hours. People trapped inside were exhausted, thirsty and hungry when they were finally released. Where in your premises can people congregate safely if locked down for a prolonged time?
  • Having up-to-date building floor plans - available to police, fire and ambulance services - can be crucial to speed up their responses.
  • A protocol for evacuation must be in place and must be familiar to people. Designated leaders of that effort must be known and identifiable in the right circumstances.

Building Security

One of the starkest aspects of Oct. 22 was the vulnerability of facilities, including one we would think impregnable: Parliament itself. It is clear that an attacker unconcerned about his own mortality will not be dissuaded by even the best armed guards. This heightens questions for organizations about their own facilities:

  • What, or who, is inside your facility that might attract a highly-motivated attacker?
  • How visible and strong are the "defences" of your facility? For example, is there video surveillance of the perimeter and/or public areas? Can the doors or elevators be locked quickly?
  • If you are in a shared office building, who controls security and how responsive are they?
  • Does a "lockdown" in your facility keep people in and keep people out? How does that work with a public lobby?
  • Are you reviewing your emergency and "lock down" protocols, in particular where those are shared with other building occupants, building management and/or a security firm? A look at these even once a year is appreciably better than assuming they're adequate.


How do employers reach out to – and hear from – their people?

  • Many organizations, such as Gowlings, have instituted an emergency communication system whereby all personnel receive a voicemail and/or email alert when there is a problem at the office. From the server going down, to a city-wide manhunt for terrorists, the alert notifies recipients of the problem and advises action (such as not coming in to work).
  • You want personnel to be able to reach out to their family and friends: to let people know they are safe and to check-up on their loved ones. This all takes time and energy, and the fact is that a true crisis can be enormously distracting from normal work. Better to let people take the few minutes they need to make these calls and send these notes, than for them to be anxious and even more distracted.
  • It is equally important within organizations, in particular for smaller groups, to try and hear from personnel about their whereabouts. A team leader or manager may send out her own email or text to a small group, asking people to check in. This can augment a general broadcast message and give some personal reassurance that your people are safe.
  • Another key is accurate information, sometimes a scarce commodity in a public crisis. Enabling, even encouraging people, to check the news on their computers or to visit a common room with TV coverage can make a difference. It is almost impossible to squelch rumours during a fast-moving event, but not trafficking in them is a good idea.
  • A message from company or facility leadership can re-assure staff that the situation is getting the attention required.

Don't expect much work to get done

The events of Oct. 22 made it tough for people in Ottawa to buckle down and attend to their normal, routine activities. The reality of constant Internet news, emails, texts, calls, an ambulance down the block, police running up and down main streets, sirens and just stress, undoubtedly made the day less productive. In a situation of real crisis, which this was in Ottawa, that may just be a necessary cost of doing business: we can't ask people to be robots and in fact, to the extent people are productive, a little extra recognition might be in order.

The Aftermath

The first days following the Oct. 22 tragedy were tense and surreal, especially for some who work near the scenes of the shootings. Some considerations:

  • If employees are reluctant to resume work after an incident, their fears have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis: do they have reason to be afraid? A respectful dialogue is often the best way to work through this kind of situation.
  • For organizations with the resources, the aftermath to a day like Oct. 22 may include reminding personnel of the support offered through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
  • Episodes of perceived terrorism are often linked, in the public mind, to particular religious and/or ethnic groups. Personal opinion is one thing but people must be careful not to get into what can be bruising, unfair and divisive conversations at work. Members of a group do not owe an apology or explanation for crimes committed under a twisted version of their creed. This is a matter of human rights law and of common decency.

Review and Recognition

These are exceptionally stressful situations: no organization's response will be perfect. It is valid to examine and critique how emergency management can be improved, but it is equally important to recognize how it succeeded and who contributed to that.

An employer should judge the success of its response to a crisis by how well it protects people and communicates with them. It is crucial to examine your readiness to respond.

An employer will be judged by its people on those same measures. Also, people remember how they are treated in times of stress. It is often the smallest things that can make the greatest impact, positively or otherwise.

Special thanks to Jennifer Emmans for her contributions to this article.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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