Helping Employees Handle the Stress of Heightened Terror Alerts

Recent terror alerts focusing on newly uncovered terrorist plans to strike five U.S.-based financial institutions in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., are part of what may prove to be a long string of terror-related stories in the news ó stories that are capable of causing stress among your employees, suppliers, and customers alike. Even employees in non-targeted cities or industries are likely to be anxious about coming to work in major metropolitan areas. In many corporations these alerts are responded to by “corporate security,” which is charged in many cases with protecting a firm’s physical and electronic assets. Unfortunately, corporate security professionals routinely view employee stress as a minor issue and fail to place maintaining a confident and productive workforce near the top of their agenda. As a result, at most organizations, it falls upon the HR department and individual managers to proactively provide leadership and planning so that employees are kept informed and given options should they fear coming in to work. My experience advising managers and HR professionals with previous alerts, natural disasters, and the Y2K issue has allowed me to compile a list of dos and don’ts for organizations with employees facing these threats. Why do you need to act?

  • Current and potential employees will judge your firm based on your reaction to this issue.
  • Having stressed-out or nervous employees coming in to work may be disruptive and actually be worse than letting them stay at home.
  • Even if workers do come in, breaking news and rumors during working hours may cause panic and disruption if you’re not prepared.
  • Being proactive and anticipating employee-related issues will allow your organization to be productive, even during terror alert periods.

What actions should individual managers or HR departments take?

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  1. Survey a group of employees that feel stressed and ask them for a list of what they would consider to be reasonable options.
  2. Review and implement portions of your natural disaster, Y2K, or previous 9/11 reaction plans as they relate to employee stress and coming to work in targeted areas.
  3. Provide every manager with a simple one-page “dos and don’ts” checklist.
  4. Appoint an individual in HR to answer employee questions and to serve as a liaison with corporate security.
  5. Create a password-protected website that enables all employees ó both those in targeted areas and those working abroad ó to get trusted information internally in real time.
  6. Send out an email to all employees showing your sympathy for their concerns and outlining their options.
  7. Be particularly sensitive to individuals in the New York, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. ó areas where employees are likely to have relatives or friends who were involved in the first 9/11 tragedy.
  8. As much as possible, tell employees the steps you have taken to protect them from harm and to assure their security during an emergency.
  9. Offer a recorded message, email or website that outlines employee options in each job category and location.
  10. Advise essential employees that they need to come in to work (remember: without managers present, there could be chaos if events worsen).
  11. Allow nonessential employees (generally those who are not involved in customer service or transactions) that they can stay home (and use comp time, sick leave, or vacation time if they are hourly employees).
  12. Inform employees of the consequences if they are required to come in and they do not.
  13. Allow stressed-out employees who are not involved in essential jobs to work from home or at a designated remote company site.
  14. Consider developing an email, cellphone, or paging alert network so that employees can be notified immediately at home about company expectations and their options.
  15. Allow individual managers some leeway in granting employee requests.
  16. Provide onsite counseling or give employees an employee assistance program number to call if they are stressed.
  17. Tell employees that no matter what they do, they must let their manager know the option that they have selected.
  18. For workers that do come in, be sure to keep them busy, because it keeps their minds engaged in the work at hand and off of current events. Assure them you will inform them instantly if any thing comes up (so they don’t have to monitor the TV/radio constantly).
  19. Educate managers about the symptoms of anxiety problems and employee concerns that require a manager’s or professional’s attention. Urge managers to talk directly to their employees about any related issues.
  20. Develop a plan to handle individual workers who are clearly being disruptive (because of their anxiety).
  21. Involve the workers (or union) in the planning process, in order to lessen their fears and to get their understanding of the problem.
  22. Allow or even encourage workers to take a day off to work for charities in order to meet their need to “do something” during stressful times.
  23. Consider allowing workers to postpone or cancel immediate business trips that require visits to New York or Washington.
  24. Consider canceling or postponing upcoming conferences or events that may require a large number of people to fly to New York, New Jersey, or Washington.
  25. Use this is an opportunity to review and upgrade your disaster/terrorism plan.
  26. Establish feedback loops in order to learn from past mistakes and improve your organization’s response to future issues.

Remember that there are no hard and fast answers to stress-related issues. In case of doubt, err on the side of empathy and compassion. It is highly likely that treating people with respect and consideration now will have positive payoffs later down the road when employees reconsider their career options. It’s also important to remember that customers are also aware of the terrorism issue and they are likely to react positively to any sympathetic response that you take regarding employee concerns.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



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