Responses to Workplace Violence Post 9/11: What Can Organizations Do?

Workers and workplaces have been and likely will continue to be targets of terrorism. The violent events of September 11 and the more subtle, though no less fear-engendering, anthrax assaults on the workplace that have followed, pose tremendous challenges to both employees and employers. How employers respond to such events and prepare for future ones will have critical consequences for the health and well-being of both their employees and their organizations. At this critical juncture, there are actions employers can undertake to help minimize and ameliorate the psychological impact of terrorist violence.

Leadership

Examples of good (and poor) leadership abounded in the days and months following September 11. Leaders at all levels of the organization exert profound effects on employee well-being and motivation. The most effective leaders are visible, convey a sense of hope and optimism while being realistic, and are calm and calming, all the time communicating both what is known and what is not known. Successful leaders also involve their employees in developing disaster and recovery plans and profoundly affect outcomes when they ensure that organizational supports are in place and that they themselves are accessible, supportive and empathic. Organizations must offer leaders at all levels access to training, development opportunities and resources to facilitate leadership actions.

Two examples of positive leadership are:

  • New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was a visible presence while providing hope and honest information.

  • After speaking about the troubles facing the CEO of American Airlines announced that "But better days are coming. I strongly believe in the future of American, so much so that late last week I bought 40,000 shares of AMR stock on the open market." He also reminded callers to their 1-800 number of the need to respect diverse people and groups.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a feature of modern organizations. People in both private and public sector organizations are experiencing markedly increased uncertainty because of the threat of terrorist events. Personal safety and security, which were formerly taken for granted, have been eroded. This is of a real concern for both the individual employee and for the organization, as, because research has shown that uncertainty is linked to employees' physical and psychological problems, and to poorer organizational performance. Leaders must, therefore, do all within their power to convey useful and timely information-including what is not known. Effective leaders communicate information that is specific, avoiding ambiguous messages that convey little information but may spread uncertainty and panic. Useful information reduces uncertainty, and must be shared with all individuals in the organization, regardless of their position.

  • At the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., the mailroom was shut until more accurate information was available about anthrax.

  • At one office of a federal agency, even while waiting for the results of an environmental analysis, a senior official offered employees the opportunity for voluntarily screening to provide accurate information about their health after an anthrax scare.

Planning

It is vital to plan. Although most organizations are unlikely to directly experience a terrorist action, developing a response plan for such an eventuality is important. Employees from all levels of the organization should be involved. The most effective plans involve specific role assignments, continual communication, rehearsal, reevaluation, and effective mechanisms for reporting information. Written plans for dealing with workplace violence and disasters have proven effective. Effective plans also limit liability. Involving employees in emergency planning is critical to foster a sense of control, which is essential for employee well-being and productivity. Encouraging employees to establish back up plans for themselves and their dependents could further enhance well-being.

  • Children's Hospital in Washington, DC, developed a mass catastrophe strategy to ensure the hospital could be self-sufficient for five days which includes stockpiling medications and bottled water, and going into total lock-down mode ("Code Purple") when the ventilation systems are turned off.

  • The American Psychological Association, located blocks from Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, had an existing disaster plan that was activated during the disaster on 9/11. Immediately thereafter, the plan was reviewed, modified to ensure that it was appropriate for new types of threats, and disseminated widely.

Communications

Good communication reduces uncertainty and harmful rumors. During organizational crises, good communications at all levels are even more important to help employees reduce fear, anxiety, and feelings of being out of control. Employers must foster an atmosphere in which two-way communication is valued. They Employers need to provide frequent, full, specific and up-to-date information regarding the crisis. Employers must also encourage employees to approach management to ask questions, share concerns and information, and offer suggestions and solutions, by establishing both formal structures and processes to facilitate on-going communication, as well as opportunities for informal communication. Employers should use multiple communication channels, which could include leadership forums, special staff meetings, emails, telephone trees, internal websites and one-on-one interactions.

For example, immediately following the 9/11 attacks:

  • The CEO of American Airlines personally recorded the message that was played to employees who called the 1-800 number; through regular voice and emails from the CEO and CPO, Cap, Gemini, Ernst and Young gave regular updates on other personnel.

  • First Tennessee National Corporation provided all employees with a number of resources through corporate emails, Intranet, newsletters, 1 800-call centers and various employee assistance programs (EAP) to cope with the tragic events.

  • The Money Group and Advest through their corporate Intranet site provided on-line resources to help employees cope with the tragedy; their intranet site included information staff could use to help their children. They also gave the names and addresses of other organizations accepting donations, updates on donating blood, and opportunities for volunteering.

Support

Work-related support limits the consequences of exposure to work-related stress. When people take care of people, and respect and respond to each others' needs and feelings, both they and the organization are better off. Support can range from listening to people's concern and fears about themselves and their loved ones, to recognizing unique individual needs for recovery from unusually demanding tasks, to providing for practical needs such as food and transportation. Being flexible about how and when work gets accomplished also helps create a supportive atmosphere. Professional Mental health counseling from a qualified professional should also be made available and encouraged, but should not be mandatory. A wealth of research shows that a supportive work environment enhances health and well-being, especially during times of crisis.

For example, immediately following the 9/11 attacks:

  • Adecco immediately established centers where displaced workers could receive free training, career counseling, and placement.

  • Cap, Gemini, Ernst and Young found emergency housing for all displaced New York workers and their families at company expense.

  • With assistance from its EAP, Vivendi Universal made counselors available on site to provide one-on-one sessions. Handouts about how to help others with grief, bereavement and dealing with stress were made available to all employees.

Conclusion

The challenge to leaders and to the work environment is huge, but not insurmountable. If corporate leadership can take on this challenge, this crisis may provide an unprecedented opportunity not only to repair the damage but also to create workplaces more committed to employee health and, to individual and group productivity than ever before.