Christine Lahey wasn’t sure at first what the cryptic text she received on her cell phone around 3 p.m. on April 15, 2013, meant. The message read: “I’m safe. Turn on the news.”
The text came from a co-worker who was watching the end of the Boston Marathon near the offices of Liberty Mutual Insurance, where Lahey is vice president of employee relations and human resource services.
“I was at home and received this text within 10 minutes of the blast,” Lahey recalled. “I didn’t know up until that point that there had been an attack.”
Both explosions that tore through the crowd gathered near the marathon’s finish line were just a few blocks from Liberty Mutual’s headquarters. As Lahey learned more about the extent of the bomb attacks, she began to focus on the safety of the nearly 4,000 employees who worked downtown and their family members.
Several Liberty Mutual employees were running the marathon, while others were volunteering along the race route, and Lahey had no idea how many could have been spectators near the finish line, where the bombs exploded. According to Lahey, corporate training and preparation for emergency situations paid off as the business-continuity plan kicked in.
“It actually ran fairly smoothly,” she said. “Everyone knew what they had to do, and the emergency response plan worked just like it was supposed to.”
Members of the management and HR teams began communicating with each other, and Lahey learned that one employee was injured in the blasts and taken to the hospital.
“But the injury wasn’t severe, and that person was treated and released pretty quickly,” she said.
Liberty Mutual’s offices were closed for the day, which may have been a stroke of good luck for the company. Lahey said she hates to think about what might have happened if dozens of Liberty Mutual employees had left the office to check out the finish line. The company normally closes its headquarters the day of the marathon because the building is adjacent to the finish line and the street is blocked off to set up aid and medical tents for the race.
“So our offices were really right next to the explosion sites, and we knew that could mean serious disruptions on Tuesday [the day after the bombing] and that we might even have to keep the office closed,” she said.
Liberty Mutual’s management team had several conference calls the evening of April 15 and early the next morning to assess the situation and make updates to their business operation plans. After hearing from the Boston police and learning that the company’s main office tower would be outside the 15-block area cordoned off as the crime scene, they decided to open the offices.
“Both the mayor and our governor were really encouraging companies to open for business and get the city working again,” Lahey noted, “so we opened the offices up.”
One annex office remained closed, however, affecting about 300 employees.
The day after the bomb blasts, a similar scenario played out for businesses in downtown Boston as HR teams grappled with the decision of trying to operate on a normal schedule.
“I wouldn’t call it business as normal at all,” said Nancy Stager, executive vice president of human resources and charitable giving at Eastern Bank Corp. “We are all in shock, and it’s pretty far from normal here. But most of our offices and bank branches were open for business the day after the bombings.”
Like Lahey, Stager says her company’s emergency response plan worked well. Two of the bank’s branch offices remained closed the day after the bombing because they are located in or near the crime scene. According to Stager, the bank’s management team was able to quickly assess that its employees and their families were safe. Once they knew what offices would have to close, the bank’s HR officials were able to shift personnel to different branches or office locations.
“A lot of people were thankful for the chance to go to work,” Stager said. “In a situation like that you feel helpless and want to do something, so going to work offers one way to feel like you’re in control of your life again.”
Boston-area businesses were again put to the test on April 19, when most of the metro area was placed on lockdown as police conducted a massive manhunt for a bombing suspect who escaped on foot after an early-morning shootout.
Calls to area businesses on the morning of April 19 revealed that many people had heeded Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s pleas to stay home. The area’s rapid transit shut down completely, as did most area taxicab companies.
“Yes, a lot of people are impacted by this manhunt,” said Tracy Burns, executive director of the New England HR Association. “HR professionals are right now trying to figure out how to communicate with people and keep them away from the city. It’s kind of a moment-by-moment decision.”
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.