After the tragedy of September 11

A different view of business.

The galvanizing horror of Sept. 11, 2001 shook everyone in North America. The events during and following that day vividly showed the best and worst of humanity. It was a dramatic display of one consequence of living in the Global Village.

The media has examined the impact Sept. 11 will have on the economy, air travel, national security, specific industry sectors and the design of office buildings. HR professionals need to think about the implications for the management, design and operation of organizations.

It has been a time for strong HR leadership, especially in organizations with staff located in Manhattan or on the hijacked flights that morning. Many HR departments have faced the challenges of helping employees and their families cope with the trauma and uncertainty, tracking down missing staff, dealing with the loss of colleagues and helping the organization get “back to normal.”

When organizations face traumatic circumstances, HR support must be an integral component of the emergency response team. Senior HR leadership is required in planning and preparing an organization to respond to all types of emergencies.

In my experience, no real emergency follows the emergency manual. Thorough emergency plans are essential, however, leadership is needed throughout any crisis to continually adapt existing plans to reflect the specifics of the actual emergency. In every case, significant human resource decisions are required throughout a crisis as well as during the aftermath, as the organization returns to normal operations.

HR leadership is also critical in helping the organization learn from every crisis, contributing to the design and implementation of changes that reflect the lessons learned, facilitating changes in work culture and practices, and leading by example.

Every organization can learn from the events of Sept. 11. For example, there are specific lessons related to: the potential vulnerability of work sites, how concentrated business operations should be at any given site, emergency communications especially for staff and their families, priorities and mechanisms for evacuation and assembly points, and follow-up support for staff and their families.

However, the experience of one company illustrates a fundamental lesson for every organization. Cantor Fitzgerald, a major fixed income inter-dealer brokerage firm, lost about 700 employees, or 30 per cent of its entire workforce, when the World Trade Centre’s North Tower collapsed.

Howard Lutnick, Cantor’s CEO, has commented that his view of business has changed. Lutnick has broadened his perspective to include the need for his company to be successful so that it can take care of the 700 families of the employees who were lost. In short, he recognizes an organization has an obligation to the health and well-being of the families of employees.

The events of Sept. 11 dramatically highlight the distorted myth that corporations exist to increase shareholder value. The reality is that no organization is a separate entity from its employees. With the growth in knowledge workers, the most important investors in an organization have become its staff. Employees have much greater capital invested in an organization than a financial investor does. Today’s skilled employee has in the range of $700,000 to more than $2 million of human capital invested in his or her employer. In addition, there is a significant investment of an employee’s time and effort spent on the employer’s behalf.

Cantor’s response also demonstrates that an organization’s commitment goes beyond its employees. Organizations need to view the employment contract as extending to include an employee’s family. It is the family that has a financial and emotional investment in the organization. In turn, the organization has ongoing obligations to the families of its employees.

As HR professionals, we can advocate for a change in business perspective. We can start by raising the profile of the human obligations that an organization has to the families of its employees. Has any one of us, when asked how many employees work for our organization, included employees’ dependants in the “head count”? After all, it is the family that depends on the employment relationship, deals with the impact of work on family life and influences the motivation, health and vitality of each employee.

Boards and senior executives need to understand that every organization has a symbiotic relationship with its employees. Fundamentally, the core of any business is its people, not its electronic systems, finances, capital equipment, its facilities or real estate. Employees are no longer mere replaceable cogs in the wheels of production. We must recognize that employees are not an organization’s most important assets, they are the organization.

Sept. 11, 2001 may well be the date that history uses to mark the beginning of the 21st century. Hopefully, it will be the defining moment that leads organizations to recognize their social responsibilities to their most important investment community, their employees.

Brian Orr is a senior HR executive. Most recently, he served as vice-president of HR at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

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