Aberdeen InSight: Human Capital Management Lessons from 9/11

By Katherine Jones

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Overview: What are the repercussions on and lessons learned by human capital managers and the employees they serve post-September 11? No doubt the topic remains a difficult subject. The 2002 HumanAssets conference, held in New York in March, served as both a poignant and bitter reminder that HR directors cannot become complacent about contingency planning. This Aberdeen InSight reviews lessons learned by Human Capital Management (HCM) professionals and discusses the implications for all businesses.

Lessons from a Crisis
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) have changed the way Americans do business in at least two very important ways - how we manage our people and how we manage our data.

Planning for the Unplannable
Most corporate offices and high-rise building tenants have a working evacuation plan. But few have adequately practiced it. The courage and orderliness shown by WTC tenants in the face of unmitigated terror was exceptional, but regardless of geographic location all employees need to know where stairwells and emergency exits are -- and well enough to locate exits through smoke and ash. Meeting places outside buildings are desirable in most situations requiring evacuation.

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Top managers typically want to stay together during a crisis -- but they shouldn't. As hard as the concept is to grasp, executives need to agree -- ahead of time -- to separate during a crisis until danger has passed.

One common travel policy that has been ignored in recent years is mandating that key executives book separate flights when traveling to the same place. Post-September 11th, many companies report that enforcement of this policy has again taken hold.

Of chief concern for HR managers is being able to tell who is where and when. And it is imperative that this information not reside only in one place. All corporate data -- including employee data -- must be backed up and vaulted in some off-site location. We've learned this lesson in the WTC bombing, the Hinsdale fire, and several other disaster situations.

One HR director reports that she carries contact data for all company expatriate workers at all times, especially after the deaths of several workers and reporters abroad. That means the following:

HCM managers directly affected by September 11th reported several surprises that they were not prepared to deal with. Among these is the modern definition of "family" - as companies created funds and scholarships for families affected by the tragedy, they found that few employees had traditional families that would make such allotments straightforward. One HR managing director reported that his employee in one instance had two wives, each with his children. The lesson: expect diversity in the familial arrangements of employees -- and plan for it.

Another unanticipated outcome cited by all HCM directors was the need of employees to keep in contact from diverse locations. After the WTC disaster, for example, employees would try to report to work, seeking to connect with colleagues and reunite or grieve together. This is a very natural consequence, but one not planned for in New York, as there was no place to gather. And for those companies that had alternative sites for employees to reconvene, those places were often ill equipped to accommodate displaced employees.

Without trivializing the human need for contact in time of tragedy, companies should plan to activate an Internet hotline (hosted off-site) equipped to provide a constant flow of information to employees -- a "corporate CNN," as it were. Important in such communications is relaying information as to whether employees should stay home, transfer to another location, etc.

Encouraging employees to work at home was a clear charter emerging from this event. Currently, the congregation of all of a corporation's human assets in one location is seen as a risk to be avoided whenever possible. Post-September 11th, the concept of maintaining a dispersed workforce has emerged as essential. As the importance of business contingency planning regains attention, more employers are developing the ability to operate with a core group of telecommuting employees.

For companies whose "uptime" is mission critical -- such as many of the Wall Street firms, a hot site where employees can report back to work immediately is required. The problem for one company that had prepared such a site proved to be transportation. The firm maintained a hot back-up center on Long Island -- but no transportation was available to get employees there.

Another uncomfortable question raised at the conference: If you had to replace a substantial number of employees quickly, could your company do it? In the last six months, HCM directors have realized the necessity of a "talent pool" -- an up-to-date source of prospective applicants to continue the work of the corporation. Again, today's Internet-based sourcing and recruiting applications that help create a "talent management base" can address this need.

Where Was Technology?
If you needed to print out all employees' names and emergency contacts rapidly -- at once -- could you do it? Does your human resource information system (HRIS) support such a request? At the WTC, day care center teachers first gathered all the toddlers -- and then grabbed all their information folders -- before evacuating. The groups went to a nearby park and began calling frantic parents. What is the HCM equivalent of grabbing folders and feeling assured that you have every employee accounted for, as well as a contact number for him or her?

Again, with the WTC day care center example, there is a situation in which telephone broadcast can expedite information sharing, rather than relying on parent-by-parent phone calling, as those teachers did. Broadcast software can facilitate this -- but the crux of this plan is a communications grid that can sustain an emergency. That, however, is clearly outside the control of the HCM professional.

The gravity of September 11th caused HCM professionals and corporate managers to confront issues that they likely have never faced before -- for example, employee fear of entering the workplace. Many HR managers report that employees suffered from a variety of fears and various levels of anguish: Some employees would not return to Manhattan after the disaster; depression, guilt, and despondency were evident in surviving employees -- sometimes long-term and with recurring effects; grief or mourning for lost colleagues was pervasive; fear of flying increased (although most employers did not require anyone to board an airplane who chose not to); and personal issues surged, again often long-term, as parents and caretakers tried to reassure frantic children as their parents went off to work each day.

Key HCM Issues, Post-9/11
Compounding the issues that HCM professionals had to face were follow-on Anthrax-related frights and -- equally troubling -- the effects of a faltering economy on their organizations. They had to help employees cope, while promoting day-to-day business continuity. Two very specific items rose to the forefront immediately: preventing discrimination against Arab and Muslim employees who had become victims of harassment, and complying with the federal laws pertaining to mobilization of military reservists and national guard troops.

Physical Security
The importance of workplace security was underscored by the terrorist attacks. In addition, and close on security's heels, were the problems associated with handling mail and packages suspected to be harmful -- such as Anthrax contamination or other bioterrorist attacks. The Bureau of National Affairs publishes the following recommendations for corporate security:

So What Did We Learn?
Here are a few of the lessons learned in the wake of the WTC attacks:

Aberdeen Conclusions
The HCM professionals who addressed the HumanAssets 2002 conference were compelling to the audience for both the enormity of the tasks they faced and the bravery with which they pursued them. Although preparing for a disaster is unpleasant, it is now a critical, ongoing component of the HCM professional's responsibilities.

Katherine Jones is an analyst and managing director, Enterprise Applications, in Aberdeen Group's Human Capital Management practice. For more information, go to www.Aberdeen.com.