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
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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Before Trouble Strikes
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
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:
- Employee records have to be up to date at all times (employee self-service
applications should aid this requirement);
- Those records must be accessible off-site from the business premises;
- HCM planners must have a procedure for rapid contact of employees (advances in
broadcast alert systems via phone, fax, or e-mail can assist here);
- Next-of-kin and family information should be accurate and up-to-date;
- Post-crisis communication networks should be preplanned.
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
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.
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:
- Understand the factors that put employees at risk;
- Improve the security of buildings and other employee facilities;
- Adopt procedures for responding to threats or incidents of violence;
- Develop a workplace violence prevention policy to increase awareness.
So What Did We Learn?
Here are a few of the lessons learned in the wake of the WTC attacks:
- Have a plan. Try it out. Make sure all employees know the plan. Ensure that
executives know the plan — and accept the fact that they must scatter. now what data you
will need immediately, and where to find it.
- Have all corporate data, all employee records, everything co-located or vaulted so
information can be accessed immediately away from the affected business site.
- Keep an up-to-date copy (also located off-site) of all access codes, passwords, and
the like. A copy of data won’t help much if no one can access it.
- Know that your Employee Assistance Programs are prepared to deal with a catastrophic
situation. Getting counseling to employees in a timely way is critical. Know whom to call
to start the process.
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.