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Terrorism Response: Guidelines for Managers

Although the recent terrorist events may have happened thousands of miles away from you, there are many potential people-related business problems that may occur at your workplace for some time to come.

The best and most strategic human resources personnel will anticipate such problems and ensure that their organizations respond optimally. Dr. John Sullivan, professor of human resources at San Francisco State University, and Dr. Laurie Anderson, an Illinois-based psychologist and organizational consultant, believe there are a significant number of issues and possible courses of action to consider. They offer the following advice.

Generally, 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 the terrorism events) is an essential first step. Although HR professionals and managers can't prevent all of the potential problems that a traumatic event like this can cause, they should at least sustain a timely awareness of what is occurring that will likely impact their organizations and have a plan of action prepared in response to unpreventable events. It is key to identify the plan of action as such so it is not misinterpreted as a thoughtless or callous response.

Below is a list of potential business issues that may arise as a result of the terrorist attacks in September. With adaptations, these guidelines will also be useful in the event that your workplace suffers a catastrophic attack in the future.

Fear and Anxiety
Employees may fear working in (or even near) tall buildings, especially landmark or symbolic buildings.
Employees will likely fear taking commercial airline flights, especially out of major airports. Some may even refuse to fly.
Employees in the New York and Washington areas and all airline and financial services employees are likely to have friends or co-workers that suffered directly as a result of the traumatic events. Expect the emotional distractions related to these losses to last for a period of time. Expect different stages of response such as shock, sadness, anger, and depression.
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.
Expect there to be a heightened sense of our mortality which will cause some people to revisit their current life/work balance and their overall career choices. Some people who have wrestled with questions related to how many hours they work or how much they travel may now make decisions to change jobs/careers or cut back their hours.

Employee Relations Issues
Although some people may be re-evaluating their career choices, expect a general slowdown in recruiting and turnover because fewer people will be moving/looking during this uncertain period.
Expect an overall decrease in productivity, an increase in hallway conversations, and a desire to listen to the news.
Employees perceived as being from certain ethnic and religious groups are likely to fear retaliation and/or blame from either customers or co-workers.
Some employees or customers may harass any employees perceived to be from certain ethnic and religious groups.
Expect increased absenteeism, late arrivals, and increased vacation requests during this period.
Expect employees stranded as a result of flight cancellations to be anxious.
Expect your international employees to have increased fears of terrorism and air travel.
If you have people who are missing or dead from these recent events 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.

Possible Solutions - What Managers Can Do

Keep people busy. Getting people back to work is a good thing because it keeps their minds productively engaged and off current events. Urge employees to come to work and to get back into their routine immediately, wherever possible. Frame this as part of your organization's crisis response plan.
Educate managers about the symptoms of possible anxiety problems and employee concerns that require their attention and that might require professional attention. Suggest tools or approaches they should use. Urge managers to talk directly to their employees about needing to stay on top of assessing the immediate and the delayed trauma and how to respond rapidly and effectively to whatever is indicated.
Designate an HR person to be the primary contact for issues related to this event. Be sure that they are qualified to lead this charge and that they do so visibly.
Post information on the symptoms associated with reactive anxiety and depression and a checklist of what employees should do if or when the symptoms persist or worsen.
Provide on-site or telephone counseling and education for anxiety and depression.
Add an information section to your Web site which covers issues related to this event.
If individual workers are clearly being disruptive (because of their anxiety) send them home or to counseling.
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.
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.
Encourage employees to immediately report any harassment they see of employees perceived to be from certain religious and ethnic groups. 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.
Be more flexible in requests for using sick leave and vacation for a period after the terrorist attack. Allow workers time to call friends and relatives and to talk out their concerns.
Allow stressed workers to work at home or to use sick days until their anxieties subside.
Allow workers to postpone or cancel immediate business trips that require commercial flights.
Involve workers (or the union) in the process of alleviating anxiety in order to lessen their fears and to take "ownership" of the problem.
Tell employees that you will keep them informed about any new events through email or loudspeaker, so they have no need to constantly listen to the news.
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).
Contact your employee assistance program vendor to see what services they offer and whether they are gearing up for the extra counseling that will be needed.
Use this as an opportunity to review and upgrade your disaster plan.
Establish feedback loops so employees can communicate unmet/unanticipated needs or ways to improve the organization's response.

Dr. John Sullivan is a professor of human resources at San Francisco State University. Contact him by phone at (650) 738-1922 or by email at johns@sfsu.edu. Dr. Laurie Anderson is a clinical psychologist and organizational consultant. Contact her by phone at (708) 524-2444 or by email at lauriemail@aol.com.

To learn more, you may contact us by telephone (203.264.6802) or via email.

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