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Why 9-11 Didn't Change the Workplace

Studies show that the terrorist attacks have not brought massive changes to most American workplaces. HR professionals should monitor the specific needs of their employees, and keep the big picture in mind.

March 24, 2002
Related Topics: Change Management, Latest News

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

In the weeks following the attacks, everyone in America -- from hotdogvendors standing beside their stainless-steel carts to the white-shirted Sundaynews commentators -- seemed to agree on one thing: that life in America wouldnever be the same. The post-9/11 world and workplace would be radicallydifferent, 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 attacksposed an acid test for employers, often fundamentally changing theemployer-employee relationship." Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate, was quoted inParade magazine saying, "Now there is a before and after. Nothing will be thesame." And business consultant Morrie Shechtman, chairman of The ShechtmanGroup, a consulting firm specializing in corporate culture, professed that "ourbelief that our institutions will somehow protect us has been shattered. Thatincludes our nation, our local communities, and, yes, our workplaces."

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

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

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

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

This is not, however, what the media or consultants or vendors would have hadyou believe. In the wake of September 11, HR professionals were besieged by newsreports and advertisements screaming about the desperate need for everythingfrom heightened background checks, video monitoring, and executive security toenhanced EAP services, crisis planning, and teleconferencing technology.

Career counselors warned of a massive soul-searching among employees.Corporate psychologists discussed the inherent unpredictability ofpost-traumatic stress disorder. Diversity consultants advised managers to stayalert for increased discrimination. And why not? The country was in the midst offearful 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 themassive workplace changes predicted in September for the most part haven’tmaterialized.

Granted, 36 percent of people responding to a national Red Cross surveyclaimed 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 thesearch for more meaningful work. In fact, the majority of supposedly "new"workplace concerns raised after September 11 are really just extensions ofongoing challenges.

Workplace security? That had been a concern because of perceptions aboutworkplace violence. Video-conferencing and e-learning? They were already growingin popularity because of cost-savings. Multicultural awareness? This has been anissue at least since the Hudson Institute first released "Workplace 2000" in1987.

"One of the mistakes made by the media and by some business presenterspost-9/11 was the tendency to say that this or that has changed," says DavidStum, 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. tohug their kids, but that doesn’t mean true behavioral change has occurred. Theonly change we can state with assurance is that if a trend already existedbefore September 11, that trend has probably accelerated."

The other difficulty in trying to ferret out workplace changes is that it’shard to separate the events of that one day from the precipitous economicdownturn that followed. Many of the adjustments and difficulties experienced byemployers have more to do with downsizing, cost-cutting, and shrinking profitmargins than they do with September 11.

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

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

In just eight months last year, employee commitment as measured by AonConsulting’s Workplace Commitment Index jumped from a five-year low to afive-year high. This was due to anxiety and uncertainty caused by both theevents of September 11 and the recession, Stum says. While employees in the late1990s were looking for any good reason to leave a company, now they are lookingfor any good reason to stay, he says. "People have a tendency to hunker downand 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 companiessince September 11, Stum cautions that the jump represents a false loyalty. "Wenow have people who show up regularly and aren’t looking for otheropportunities," he says, "but they aren’t bringing anything else to workeither. No creativity, no commitment to customer service or quality, and noloyalty to the goals of the organization." Once the economy improves andSeptember 11 gets further behind us, he predicts, employees will return to thejob-hopping habits of the late 20th century. And with baby boomers retiring anddemographic trends dramatically changing, there will be nothing to stop them.

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

So, what does all the talk about September 11 and the recession mean for HRprofessionals? 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 thingsbecome clear.

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

Second, although there were many reports about how September 11 was likely toaffect companies, the actual effects -- if they materialized at all -- differedfrom one company to another. Instead of taking the generalized predictions ofthe media or consultants to heart, HR professionals should monitor the specificneeds of their particular workforces. For example, instead of investing a greatdeal of money in teleconferencing technology because of widespread travel fear,companies should ask employees how they’re feeling about travel and whether ornot they would prefer teleconferencing.

The third lesson is that retention is still the key HR issue. Finding andkeeping quality employees was an issue long before September 11, and even thoughunemployment has risen and downsizing receives a lot of press, HR professionalscannot be casual about the need to retain good employees. As Aon’s WorkplaceCommitment Index indicates, employees are showing a desire to stay with theircompanies, but it’s a desire born of fear. "HR directors should definitelystill be thinking about the war for talent," Gochman says. "When you look atdemographic trends, there simply aren’t enough younger cohorts to take theplace of retiring boomers."

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

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


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