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Reconsidering Travel in the Aftermath of September Eleventh

The Borland Software Corporation's policy is inconvenient, but it's too risky to do it otherwise.

October 26, 2001
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The devastating attacks are still with us -- replayed on television, augmentedby daily escalations around the globe, and taking twists and turns that rivalfiction. The nightmare that began on September 11th is all the more astonishingbecause it was perpetrated against people in the workplace. So, it's not at allsurprising that in a variety of ways, managers are rethinking all of their policies,especially corporate travel.

    It has become one of the top security issues facing organizations. In a surveyconducted by the Business Travel Coalition of its corporate members, 62 percentprohibited all travel through at least September 16, and 88 percent said employeeswould reduce travel in the future. A survey by the Society for Human ResourceManagement also found that 52 percent said employees do not consider businesstravel as glamorous and 37 percent said the companies are curtailing businesstravel.

Create a policy that makes travel less risky
    On the other hand, we all know that business travelcannot -- and will not -- be eliminated. The National Business Travel Association(NBTA), whose members are responsible for more than 70 percent of U.S. businesstravel ($185 billion) or over 40 million business travelers a year, stated onOctober 1 that 70 percent of those surveyed anticipate a recovery in businesstravel within three to six months. What this means is that corporate travelprocedures and processes have to be revamped. And many companies are doing justthat.

    "We immediately changed our travel policy, "says Roger Barney, chiefadministrative officer for Borland Software Corporation, based in Scotts Valley,California. "We originally allowed two senior executives and up to 10 employeesto travel together on one airplane, and changed that to one senior exec anda maximum of five employees."

    With a worldwide employee population of 1,100 and only six senior executivesin the company, Borland created a matrix based on the organizational chart thatdoesn't allow two critically important people to travel together. For example,the vice president of product development and a chief scientist cannot fly together;a business unit vice president and a chief scientist or two business unit vicepresidents cannot travel together. "We don't want to lose anybody, butwe asked ourselves, 'if something were to happen, could we recover or wouldit do serious damage to the company?'"

    Borland created and published the matrix, with instructions to the travel agencythat it cannot book those two people on the same plane. It creates inconveniencebecause those are precisely the pairs and groups of people who would use theirtravel time together to do work. But Borland sees it as too risky to do otherwise.

    Creating the matrix is not very difficult, requiring a bit of organizationaland a bit of business logic. Take the org chart and study it. The top peoplemay not be indicated by title, but by function or uniqueness of skill. Lookat your product lines. Who runs them? Are there technical people who are critical,along with the business-unit head? Think about what you would do if you lostthat uniqueness of skill. Could you still keep the business running?

    Consider overseeing travel more strictly and establishing a central clearinghousethat everyone goes through. "Every company should have a tight travel policyso management knows where people are," says Elaine Carey, senior vice president of Control Risks Group. "Travel should be vetted through a central sourceso someone who knows what is happening in the world can tell people."

    Companies are asking employees to reconsider theirtravel seriously -- if they really need to travel and where they'regoing. They're asking workers to use judgment about the location, which mayor may not be volatile, but if there were a terrorist attack, would they beable to get home?

    Finally, the simplest precautions are to be sure that managers have severalcontact numbers for all traveling employees and to make available to travelerseasy ways to get in touch with the company.

How to limit travel
    Of course, many firms are looking to technology to reduce travel -- for securityas well as for cost-savings reasons. In the first half of 2001, there were morethan 13 million teleconference calls placed in North America, according to TeleSpanPublishing, and information suggests an increase of 20 to 50 percent since September11.

    Videoconferencing is another alternative companies are investigating. Accordingto New York-based The Conference Board, there is renewed interest. They speculatethat the confluence of improved technology, which offers dramatic differencesin quality, and the desire to cut travel, means that videoconferencing may becomemore widely accepted.

    But limiting travel and making it safer -- both for the company and the employee-- won't resolve every situation.

Coping with employees who can't cope
    Organizations currently have to figure out how they can best respond to expressionsof anxiety and fear on part of employees who have to travel by air. Does thefirm have any obligation to allow the employee to use alternative methods oftransportation or to simply bow out of a trip that might have been planned aheadof time?

    "It's important to keep in mind that the law may allow an employer totake certain positions with regard to requiring travel that may not necessarilybe the most prudent or most sensitive approach," says Stephen Sonnenberg,a partner at Los Angeles-based law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker.For example, it may be a bona fide requirement of an employee's job to travel,and that requires air travel across the country in order to do work in a reasonablyefficient manner. But for an employer to simply insist that it is not goingto look at alternatives isn't wise. In other words, don't act solely on thebasis of what the law allows.

    There are several options if you find yourself facing this situation. Manyemployers are reminding employees about the services of employee assistanceprograms (EAPs). This is a wise and sensitive thing to do. "Everyone isanxious, whether or not you have to travel by air, and to the extent that anEAP helps the employee keep the anxiety in check, and, in the long run, focusedon work, that's good for the employee and the employer," says Sonnenberg.

    Other options are to use other forms of transportation in the short-term. Whenan employee proposes an alternative means of transportation, if it doesn't causeunreasonable expense or cost too much extra time, employers should seriouslyconsider allowing employees to do so, for at least some period of time.

    Another option is to consider is whether someone else can take over that partof the job on a temporary basis. Consider the possibility of substituting someoneelse who won't be as anxious to fly.

    "There will be instances where no one else can do it," says Sonnenberg,and that's when you may face a dilemma. "There are many different typesof employees, and some of them may have had chronic problems for some time beforeSeptember 11, and now this is yet another way they are challenging the employer'sability and right to direct them to do a particular job." This poses aparticularly difficult situation for employers where there is a history of difficulties,and this is just another in a series of problems. The challenge is to not seethis simply as an act of insubordination, but to try to deal with this employeewith flexibility.

    In the final analysis, though, there will be situations where--from a legalperspective--the employer does have the right to ask the employee to travel.If the employee refuses to do so, is he or she being insubordinate? "Dependingon the facts, it may be yes," Sonnenberg says. Could the employee asserta legal claim against the employer because of unsafe working conditions? "Here,the FAA and members of our government are assuring us that air travel is assafe as they can make it. So, ultimately, an employee cannot really make thatclaim," he says. (Obviously, you would always want to contact an attorneyabout a specific situation.)

    From a hiring perspective, Sonnenberg says that an employer cannot and shouldnot ask questions that are going to identify a mental or physical impairment,so you wouldn't want to ask if someone has a phobia or anxiety condition. Butit is wise to make it crystal clear from the beginning in describing the jobduties that travel is an essential part of the job, and to be specific aboutthe means of travel, the destinations, and the frequency.

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