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Why 9-11 Didn't Change the Workplace

April 17, 2002
Related Topics: Change Management, Featured Article

On September 11, approximately 3,000 people were killed in the worst series of terrorist attacks this country has ever seen. The vast majority of victims had one characteristic, one major characteristic, in common: they were at work when they lost their lives. They were bond traders, chefs, firefighters, computer programmers, administrative assistants, custodians, vice presidents, and flight attendants. All were imperiled simply because they showed up for work that day.

In the weeks following the attacks, everyone in America -- from hotdog vendors standing beside their stainless-steel carts to the white-shirted Sunday news commentators -- seemed to agree on one thing: that life in America would never be the same. The post-9/11 world and workplace would be radically different, they agreed. How could it not be?

What does all the talk about September 11 and the recession mean for HR professionals? Are there any lessons to be learned?

The Wall Street Journal claimed, "The aftermath of the terrorist attacks posed an acid test for employers, often fundamentally changing the employer-employee relationship." Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate, was quoted in Parade magazine saying, "Now there is a before and after. Nothing will be the same." And business consultant Morrie Shechtman, chairman of The Shechtman Group, a consulting firm specializing in corporate culture, professed that "our belief that our institutions will somehow protect us has been shattered. That includes our nation, our local communities, and, yes, our workplaces."

But is the workplace so radically different today? Are workers more anxious and distracted? Are employees choosing family picnics over promotions? Has the radical shift predicted by prognosticators materialized?

While it’s certainly true that Americans feel more vulnerable on American soil, and that the U.S. military has shifted its focus to terrorism, and that air travel has become much more cumbersome, the lingering impact of September 11 on most employers and working Americans has been, frankly speaking, quite negligible.

A study of 146 companies conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., indicates that while employee anxiety did increase in three out of four firms after the attacks, employee concerns have not had an impact on productivity, absenteeism, tardiness, or the quality of work performed.

A study of 1,100 full-time workers by CareerBuilder found that productivity actually rose following the attacks, leading to the conclusion that America’s businesses managed to hum along quite nicely despite the horror.

This is not, however, what the media or consultants or vendors would have had you believe. In the wake of September 11, HR professionals were besieged by news reports and advertisements screaming about the desperate need for everything from heightened background checks, video monitoring, and executive security to enhanced EAP services, crisis planning, and teleconferencing technology.

Career counselors warned of a massive soul-searching among employees. Corporate psychologists discussed the inherent unpredictability of post-traumatic stress disorder. Diversity consultants advised managers to stay alert for increased discrimination. And why not? The country was in the midst of fearful uncertainty, and as Madison Avenue has long known, fear sells.

The actual effects -- if they materialized at all -- differed from one company to another.

All of the concerns raised are valid, and should be considered, but the massive workplace changes predicted in September for the most part haven’t materialized.

Granted, 36 percent of people responding to a national Red Cross survey claimed to be spending less time at work and more time with family and friends, but the desire for greater work/life balance isn’t a new trend. Neither is the search for more meaningful work. In fact, the majority of supposedly "new" workplace concerns raised after September 11 are really just extensions of ongoing challenges.

Workplace security? That had been a concern because of perceptions about workplace violence. Video-conferencing and e-learning? They were already growing in popularity because of cost-savings. Multicultural awareness? This has been an issue at least since the Hudson Institute first released "Workplace 2000" in 1987.

"One of the mistakes made by the media and by some business presenters post-9/11 was the tendency to say that this or that has changed," says David Stum, president of Aon Consulting’s Loyalty Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "People may have been going to church more often or leaving work at 4 p.m. to hug their kids, but that doesn’t mean true behavioral change has occurred. The only change we can state with assurance is that if a trend already existed before September 11, that trend has probably accelerated."

The other difficulty in trying to ferret out workplace changes is that it’s hard to separate the events of that one day from the precipitous economic downturn that followed. Many of the adjustments and difficulties experienced by employers have more to do with downsizing, cost-cutting, and shrinking profit margins than they do with September 11.

Ilene Gochman, practice director, organization measurement, at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Chicago, says, "The emotional impact of September 11 and the recession are intertwined." And they are intertwined in some interesting ways.

The recession, for instance, has caused employees to feel much more uncertain about the future of their jobs, and for good reason. Last year, more than 2 million jobs were cut by U.S. companies, and unemployment leaped from 4.2 percent in January 2001 to 5.8 percent in December. Instead of job-hopping in the search for ever-greener pastures, today’s employees are more likely to stay put and appreciate the work they have.

In just eight months last year, employee commitment as measured by Aon Consulting’s Workplace Commitment Index jumped from a five-year low to a five-year high. This was due to anxiety and uncertainty caused by both the events of September 11 and the recession, Stum says. While employees in the late 1990s were looking for any good reason to leave a company, now they are looking for any good reason to stay, he says. "People have a tendency to hunker down and ride through crises as best they can."

Instead of taking the generalized predictions of the media or consultants to heart, HR professionals should monitor the specific needs of their particular workforces.

Even though employees may appear to be more committed to their companies since September 11, Stum cautions that the jump represents a false loyalty. "We now have people who show up regularly and aren’t looking for other opportunities," he says, "but they aren’t bringing anything else to work either. No creativity, no commitment to customer service or quality, and no loyalty to the goals of the organization." Once the economy improves and September 11 gets further behind us, he predicts, employees will return to the job-hopping habits of the late 20th century. And with baby boomers retiring and demographic trends dramatically changing, there will be nothing to stop them.

"I liken it to the following analogy," Stum adds. "If there is only one airline that flies out of Detroit, that one airline will get an awful lot of false loyalty and repeat business from fliers. But once someone opens a competitive airline next door, people aren’t likely to be as loyal." It’s the same thing with employment. Once the economy improves and companies start hiring, he says, anxiety levels and employee commitment are both likely to plummet.

So, what does all the talk about September 11 and the recession mean for HR professionals? Are there any lessons to be learned?

If you step back from day-to-day concerns about downsizing, work/life issues, and employee commitment, and take a look at the big picture, several things become clear.

First, it apparently takes a lot more than terrorist attacks, however horrific, to disrupt the flow of American business. While it’s been repeatedly stated that we live in an era of constant change, it’s also true that fundamental workplace, business, and human concerns change very slowly, if at all. Sure, new issues crop up on a daily basis -- such as coordinating military leave or providing employee grief counseling -- but that doesn’t mean you should take your eye off your company’s long-term goals and objectives.

Second, although there were many reports about how September 11 was likely to affect companies, the actual effects -- if they materialized at all -- differed from one company to another. Instead of taking the generalized predictions of the media or consultants to heart, HR professionals should monitor the specific needs of their particular workforces. For example, instead of investing a great deal of money in teleconferencing technology because of widespread travel fear, companies should ask employees how they’re feeling about travel and whether or not they would prefer teleconferencing.

The third lesson is that retention is still the key HR issue. Finding and keeping quality employees was an issue long before September 11, and even though unemployment has risen and downsizing receives a lot of press, HR professionals cannot be casual about the need to retain good employees. As Aon’s Workplace Commitment Index indicates, employees are showing a desire to stay with their companies, but it’s a desire born of fear. "HR directors should definitely still be thinking about the war for talent," Gochman says. "When you look at demographic trends, there simply aren’t enough younger cohorts to take the place of retiring boomers."

Finally, the catastrophic events of September 11 underscore how the unexpected can happen at any time. No one could have predicted that 19 people could plan a terrorist attack of such immense and ingenious proportions. In the post-9/11 workplace, it is still the job of HR to help build a lasting sense of employee pride and commitment that can carry companies through all kinds of challenges.

Workforce, March 2002, pp. 34-38 -- Subscribe Now!


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