Aberdeen InSight: Human Capital Management Lessons from 9/11


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


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.

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:

  • 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.

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.