How Should HR and Managers React in the Aftermath of Terrorism Events?

Although recent terrorist events may have occurred thousands of miles away from you, there are many potential people-related problems that may still occur at your location. Strategic HR people need to react quickly to business problems and managers need to realize that uncertainty and inaction can actually increase anxiety, so clearing the air and stating a company’s plan of action (in response to terrorism events) is an essential first step. Although HR professionals and managers can’t prevent all of the potential problems that traumatic event like this can cause, it is important that they should at least be aware of them and have a plan of action. Potential Employee Fears and Anxiety

  1. Employees may fear working in (or even near) tall buildings, especially landmark or symbolic buildings.
  2. Employees will likely fear taking commercial airline flights, especially out of major airports. Some may even refuse to fly.
  3. Employees in the New York and Washington areas and all airline and financial services employees are likely to have friends or coworkers that suffered directly as a result of the traumatic events. Expect any anxiety related to losing friends to last for at least several days. Employees in other major cities are also likely to suffer from a general malaise and anxiety as a result of the extensive and graphic news coverage.

Employee Relations Issues

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  1. Expect an overall decrease in productivity, an increase in hallway conversations and a desire to listen to the news.
  2. Employees perceived as being from certain ethnic and religious groups are likely to fear retaliation and or blame from either customers or co-workers.
  3. Some employees or customers may actually begin to harass any employees perceived as being from certain ethnic and religious groups.
  4. Expect increased absenteeism/late arrivals and increased vacation requests during this period.
  5. Expect employees stranded as a result of flight cancellations to be anxious.
  6. Expect your international employees to have increased fears of terrorism and air travel.
  7. If you have people missing or dead from the doomed flights or who were in buildings that were damaged, anticipate the need for grief counseling and immediate financial support. Talk to your legal staff about any potential legal or insurance liabilities.
  8. Expect a slowdown in recruiting and turnover because few people will be moving/looking during this uncertain period.

Possible Solutions and Things a Manager Can Do

  1. Keeping people busy and getting them back to work is important because it keeps their minds off of current events. Urge employees to come to work and to get back into their routine immediately, wherever possible.
  2. Educate managers about the possible anxiety problems and employee concerns. Suggests tools or approaches they should use. Urge managers to talk directly to their employees about these issues and respond rapidly to their requests.
  3. Designate an HR person to be the primary contact for issues related to this event.
  4. Provide onsite or telephone counseling for anxiety.
  5. Add an information section to your website which covers issues related to this event.
  6. If individual workers are clearly being disruptive (because of their anxiety) send them to counseling or home.
  7. Contact your employees in international locations that might be at risk for terrorism or retaliation. Ask them what they need and respond rapidly to the requests.
  8. Allow or even encourage workers to take time off to work for charities or to give blood, in order to meet their need to “do something” to help.
  9. Encourage employees who see harassment (of employees perceived to be from certain religious and ethnic groups) to report it immediately. Remind employees of the penalties for harassment. Assign an HR professional to handle these cases and identify any employees that may be “at risk” of violence or harassment.
  10. Be more flexible in requests for using sick leave and vacation for the next week.
  11. Allow workers time to call friends and relatives and to talk out their concerns.
  12. Allow stressed workers to work at home or to use sick days until their anxieties subside.
  13. Allow workers to postpone or cancel immediate business trips that require commercial flights.
  14. Involve the workers (or union) in the process of alleviating anxiety in order to lessen their fears and to get their “ownership” of the problem.
  15. Tell employees that you will keep them informed about any new events through emails or the loudspeaker, so they have no need to constantly listen to the “news.”
  16. Cancel or postpone upcoming conferences or events that may require a large number of people to fly commercial carriers (especially to New York or Washington).
  17. Contact your employee assistance program vendor to see what services they offer and if they are gearing up for the extra counseling that will be needed.
  18. If you have people missing or possibly even dead (that were on the flights or who were in the New York and Washington area’s that were damaged) be prepared to offer immediate financial and counseling support to the families.
  19. Take this is an opportunity to review and upgrade your disaster plan.

EDITOR’S NOTE: ERE would like to express its sadness and shock at the terrible events that unfolded yesterday in New York, Washington and elsewhere. As many of you may know, our offices are located across the river from downtown Manhattan. Fortunately our staff is doing fine; we can only hope the same for the rest of our community, particularly those who worked in or near the affected areas.

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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