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The Sept. 11 attacks were over within hours, but the effects linger even today. This is how employers are adapting.
The terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, devastated a nation and its people. For HR professionals, the shock occurred on two levels—a personal one as well as a professional one. The fact that the attacks occurred while most people were at work pierced to the very soul of what HR is all about.
Only one year later the country feels, in many ways, eons away from how it operated on Sept. 10, 2001. HR professionals are coping with the changes and adapting to new pressures in beefing up disaster recovery plans, expanding background checks on new and existing employees, enhancing security measures and helping employees who may still be coping with the tragedy.
As the anniversary approached,
HR Magazine asked readers in a variety of industries and HR-related functions to reflect on what the past year has been like—how their workplaces and jobs have changed. Here’s what some of them had to say.
Fiduciary Trust manages assets and investment strategies for individuals and institutions. The company’s headquarters were located in the World Trade Center Towers. Among those lost were Alayne Gentul, senior vice president and director of HR, and Ed Emery, VP and director of training and development.
A workplace becomes something more than a place to work after a tragedy like Sept. 11. For companies in the Twin Towers, it became a place to flee.
In the months afterward, employees still have and share painful memories of their former workplace and their lost colleagues. In Fiduciary’s new headquarters at Rockefeller Center, the workplace, though in a new space, is still filled with memories. Now the job of taking care of people has a number of new dimensions, such as:
An unexpected side benefit for HR is the mentoring and counseling that EAP leaders can provide to HR itself.
Some employees don’t find it easy or even possible to put the past behind them. HR helps executives manage their employees’ emotional needs and works with leadership to develop strategies for moving forward while leaving no one behind.
A new appreciation for the impact of leaves of absence and other employee policies. Helping employees transition back to work from absences for post-traumatic stress may involve more time and attention to the details of the workplace than ever before. This requires a level of sensitivity that may be unknown in a manager’s prior experience. HR helps managers understand what to expect and how to establish reasonable performance expectations.
Performance management isn’t “business as usual.” In a time of great stress, it is often amazing to see how many people are able to work “above and beyond” to achieve the extraordinary. After Sept. 11, employees with the ability to simply show up and continue with their normal business tasks added tremendously to maintaining the strength of our business. HR helps management keep sight of the different ways employees can be rewarded to ensure a strong foundation for growth over the long haul.
The experience of 9/11 and its aftermath show this: The things we already knew how to do became much more important. The strongest quality for an HR professional and team to exhibit during such a time is flexibility, and perhaps the most important skill is the ability to listen. We have the technical skills to aid the recovery—but with time and resources so precious, and people so challenged, we have to remember to demonstrate our true “people” skills—our humanity—every day.
Shortly after Sept. 11, we organized a series of group counseling sessions for the 1,900 employees that were located at the World Trade Center and survived the attack. We also held sessions for employees at our other locations. None of our employees was immune from the events of the day, no matter where they worked.
The sessions included presentations by EAP counselors, clergy of various denominations and Empire senior management. The level of participation was overwhelming. Whether it was because employees wanted “counseling” or because they had an intense need to be together, we’ll never know. But the meetings clearly met a need. And, while we did see an initial spike in EAP participation in the weeks after the attack, the level of usage returned to normal by the end of year.
Empire had a disaster recovery plan in place prior to Sept. 11. It was clearly a critical component of our ability to successfully respond to the challenges we faced as a result of the terrorist attack.
The events of Sept. 11 elevated disaster planning to the senior executive level. Our disaster response leadership team includes six vice presidents (two at the senior or executive level), two directors, our office manager and an information services administrator. The director of business continuity is leading this effort to develop and document emergency procedures and business recovery. This includes both the information systems infrastructure and facilities. Alternative off-site space is being arranged.
As a tenant in a Chicago building near the Sears Tower, we maintain a steady dialog with our building property manager to increase building security measures beyond their newly increased awareness. Before Sept. 11, an annual fire drill sufficed as our emergency preparedness. Now many people are documenting and distributing emergency procedures, planning scenarios and preparing for any eventuality.
Security considerations should always be tempered by a consideration of risk. Terrorists do not lurk behind every tree and bush in the United States anymore than they did during the last war on terrorism in Europe and in the Middle East. There is a big difference between paranoia and prudence so the solution that works for us may not work in a major city where a company is housed in a high-rise—the type of building a counter-terrorist specialist would call a symbolic target.
In response to Sept. 11, Data-stream did revise and update its written disaster contingency plans. We trained first responders and stockpiled emergency response kits.
Datastream has always done due diligence on new candidates for employment. We did tighten up one aspect of background checks in another country, but it would have been wise for us to have done so anyway.
Within a week of the horror, telephones began ringing and employers said, “We need to do background investigations on our employees.” These same businesses had not given a thought as to whom they had hired prior to the events of Sept. 11. Now there was a perceived need to screen employees to ensure security in the workplace.
Some businesses increased the number of job categories for which they conducted investigations and the types of searches being conducted. Concerns about negligent hiring and retention were at an all-time high. Concerns about hiring someone who is not authorized to work within the United States have grown, and employers are constantly seeking ways to confirm eligibility.
A year after the tragedy, the business community has suffered financially and unemployment has risen. Some permanent changes have occurred because of the events of last September. Companies that implemented new programs or had existing programs are continuing their scrutiny of candidates. Companies that did not have existing programs are continuing to seek out such services. Also, businesses have expanded their criminal history search area. In the past, many employers would search only the current county or state of residence. Today, companies automatically research prior residences, in most cases for a seven-year period.
Tomorrow may bring more changes to the background industry as a direct result of 9/11. Verification of immigration status through the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service is certainly something that should be promoted. Open access for licensed researchers to conduct a name search of the FBI files would be of benefit to all employers. Although some companies would have business believe otherwise, this is the only true national criminal record database, and it is not legally open to employment searches for the business community in general. These are thoughts of what tomorrow might bring. Today things continue in much the same way they did before 9/11: HR professionals do the best they can, with the tools available to them, to ensure that they have hired the best candidate for the job.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, employers have had to adapt. Here are some of the trends we’ve observed:
Contingency planning. Disaster preparedness has risen on the corporate priority list. And now major companies are adding mental and emotional health to the list of concerns. A trend noted by employee assistance programs (EAPs) is that employees are now threatening to take legal action if their employers do not help mitigate the effects of workplace trauma, including workplace violence.
Cumulative stress. Employees bring current and past experiences with them to the workplace, and those experiences affect productivity—especially when they accumulate unnoticed and untreated. In such cases, an excellent employee may end up with declining productivity and increased behavioral problems at work.
Such cumulative effects are not limited by distance. Despite being thousands of miles from ground zero, the State of Washington Employee Advisory Service (EAS) reports that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, an earthquake and the state’s declining economy, many managers noted that employee productivity dropped to 75 percent of previous capacity. The same is true of many members of management.
June statistics from EAS note that requests for stress management training rose from 2 percent last year to 12 percent this year.
Ongoing support. Because stress can accumulate over time, it is critical to provide an ongoing support structure within the workplace. Years after the Oklahoma City bombing, EAPs continue to work with employees who have lingering effects.
EAPs often coordinate and oversee critical incident stress management (CISM) services. CISM seeks to mitigate traumatic stress and facilitate long-term recovery. Debriefings are one of the first steps in the CISM continuum. They are educational sessions, not counseling sessions, and serve to mitigate the effects of trauma while assisting employees and management to understand normal reactions to abnormal events.
Management must have separate debriefings from staff. Employees need an arena to articulate their emotions and frustrations without feeling inhibited by supervisory attendance. Managers need the freedom to articulate their reactions to the event as well as to manage affected staff. It is important to make debriefings part of the institutional culture. The frequency of briefings is based on the culture and needs of the work organization. EAPs that conduct these sessions can track trends, allowing management to plan for the future.
Management’s role. Employers are beginning to lose good employees who have not received the help they’ve needed after an event. Management needs to listen, take the pulse of employees and the work environment post-traumatic events, and provide appropriate help.
One EAP reported that a New York City-based employee, working for a Nebraska-based employer, received no contact from the home office following Sept. 11 to see how she was doing. She became increasingly unhappy with the job, and felt unsupported and devalued. Four months later, she resigned.
Management plays a key role in the healing process by visibly recognizing that an event has happened and that work performance will be affected. Consultation with EAPs can assist managers in this process, as well as in identifying and referring employees who may be in need of additional one-to-one assistance.
Immediately following Sept. 11, we fielded a higher-than-normal number of calls from companies in all types of industries, wanting information about background checks. They had not been screening their applicants and felt that their overall security program needed improvement. Truth is, conventional methods for screening applicants would not, in most cases, screen out a potential terrorist.
What Sept. 11 has done is heighten security awareness for all business and organizations. A background investigation is a prime piece and usually the first step in the security process to help protect a company’s employees and make it a safer work environment.
In response to the events of Sept. 11, Verizon Communications, at the direction of the executive vice president of human resources and the vice president of corporate security, immediately reviewed, revised and implemented enhanced security procedures, in particular, in the area of background investigations.
Verizon (and its predecessor companies, Bell Atlantic and GTE) has a long-standing policy relative to background investigation for both domestic and foreign national (H1-B visa) new hires. Although there were effective pre-Sept. 11 parameters in place, an expanded background screening protocol was put into effect in February. The new process:
In the area of domestic new hires, the criminal investigation component has been expanded to a seven-year look-back from a five-year look-back. Additionally, we have retained the services of a vendor who maintains a database of criminal convictions, gathered on a national level. This latter enhancement enables us to search beyond the county/region/state level, which was our pre-Sept. 11 practice. In addition to the criminal component, we also verify Social Security number, reference checks, job history, education and driving records (the latter two are job-specific and performed only on an as-needed basis).
Specific to international hires, in particular foreign nationals (H1-B visa holders), we have significantly increased the security parameters and protocol. Prior to Sept. 11, H1-B visa holders were subjected to the same background investigation procedures as domestic new hires (including a five-year criminal search). As the majority of these potential new hires have not been in the United States for any significant amount of time, we rarely had sufficient data to cover the five-year look-back period. Verizon’s new policy, relative to H1-B visa holders, is to continue to perform a domestic background investigation, consistent with the new parameters that we have implemented for domestic new hires, as described above (seven-year search with national criminal conviction review). Additionally, where the foreign national candidates have been in the United States for less than seven years, we are now performing an international background investigation, in the candidate’s country of origin/residence, mirroring the new procedures established for domestic new hires. Verizon has retained the services of several vendors who are performing the international background investigation component.
In addition to the two areas described above, Verizon is currently reviewing a proposal that could mandate background investigations for certain third-party workers who perform services for Verizon through a vendor.
In the days following Sept. 11, MetLife undertook a thorough review of company safety and security programs. It worked with security teams at other financial services companies, as well as the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, to share best practices and develop recommendations. In February, MetLife appointed a 29-year FBI veteran as its head of security.
MetLife created an enterprise crisis management team and local crisis management teams at each of the more than 100 major MetLife locations. The enterprise team, which meets twice monthly, is composed of representatives from HR, corporate communications, legal, information technology, and facilities and services, and is headed by our vice president of security. The team coordinates the company’s enterprise crisis management procedures, formulates response protocols and tests the emergency response plans. In an emergency, the enterprise team would mobilize resources and establish a command center from which members would communicate with authorities, management, employees and the media, and identify the best response.
Local crisis management teams also meet to review members’ roles and responsibilities. Site leaders at each of our major locations coordinate these teams.
We established a toll-free number to quickly communicate with employees, and we created a safety and security information web site, accessible from our intranet, to provide employees with important updates on safety measures and emergency procedures, and a section for frequently asked questions.
MetLife has also provided counseling and other resources to help employees cope with the tragedy of Sept. 11.
Immediately after the second World Trade tower was hit, our CEO, president, communications specialist and I met to decide what to do. We reverted to our crisis response protocol, which we had developed as a result of experiencing a death in one of our locations as well as Hurricane Hugo (which struck Charleston in 1989).
We responded as we would after a tragic accident. We allowed radios and TVs in our plants. We opened our WATTS lines so associates could call potentially affected loved ones. We cautioned them that the shock of this event might leave many mentally preoccupied. Lack of concentration could lead to workplace accidents, and we did not want further tragedy.
Our EAP provided web-based information on how to communicate to children, how to cope with related stress and help for families whose loved ones are called to military duty.
We have subsequently re-engineered our crisis and disaster plan to address terrorist activity and to integrate new technology into our alternate operating plans. (For example, we now have the capability to move our Customer Service operations to two alternate sites.) We developed checklists for immediate and appropriate associate communications and community response.
SHRM articles: Additional stories from our readers (HR Magazine)
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