I’ve written several posts about crisis management, so it surprised me to realize that in over five years of blogging, I’ve never written about my experience on September 11, 2011. I’ve barely mentioned that date at all, even though the heartbreaking day not only shook me personally but provided a huge opportunity for learning as an HR executive.
I lived and worked in the Central Time Zone at the time, an hour behind the East Coast. I was in an early meeting with other members of the Human Resources staff in my company that Tuesday morning. Shortly after we started the meeting, an administrative assistant came into the room to tell us that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. We acknowledged the tragedy, but continued our meeting. Then a few minutes later, she reported that another plane had struck the other tower. At that point, it was clear that the collisions were intentional—the U.S. had been struck by terrorists. We stopped our meeting, and those of us on the company’s crisis management team, including myself, gathered to determine the impact on our company.
It might seem that a corporation a thousand miles away from the attacks should not have any issues, but our multinational company had locations around the U.S., including on the East Coast. We had employees traveling on business. We had thousands of employees throughout the nation concerned about family and friends near the affected sites. And everyone, of course, was fearful of another strike.
Through the course of that day, we worked on the following issues:
— We immediately began providing the best information we could to employees. For the first time ever, we allowed the intra-company communications monitors at each major location to broadcast national news, rather than static screens of company news. A few departments had televisions going all day long, but we wanted employees working in departments without televisions (i.e., most employees) to have ready access to information as well. Yes, productivity suffered, but it would have anyway, and making the information easily accessible was one way to show employees we cared about their concerns.
— Our Travel Department searched the travel records of all employees away on business and contacted them to determine if they were safe (they were). Because all flights in the U.S. were canceled for the next few days, we also started making alternative arrangements get those employees home. In many cases, we had to authorize one-way rental cars from the coasts to get people home. These were expensive trips, but we knew the most important thing was getting employees back to their families during this national crisis.
— We also assisted vendor and customer representatives on our sites to make arrangements to return to their homes also.
— We prepared a video message for our CEO to deliver to all employees. By midafternoon on September 11, our communications experts had recorded our CEO in a video that we put on our monitors and on the company intranet site. The CEO conveyed his sympathy to those inside and outside the company impacted by the catastrophe and said that he and other corporate officers were as devastated by the day’s events as everyone else. He also provided information on how we were handling the crisis — that the company had located all of our traveling employees and determined none had been on the downed planes and that we were working to bring the others home as quickly as possible.
— We brought in grief counselors to our major locations to conduct group sessions with employees who were emotionally distraught by the day’s news, and provided information on our Employee Assistance Program in case employees wanted more individualized counseling.
Our crisis management team continued these activities for several days, until the nation and its transportation system returned to normal. But, of course, nothing has been the same in the sixteen years since those awful events.
I learned that day the reality of the importance of communications during a crisis. It is one thing to read articles on crisis management, like this one. It is another thing to live it and to know that what you are doing is having an impact, for better or for worse, on the morale of your organization.
I learned it is important to not only communicate facts but empathy as well. Company leaders and managers must seek out and pass on accurate and timely information. But good leaders must also be emotionally congruent with others in their organization. This emotional support is critical, even though at the same time management is providing direction and channeling people’s energy toward productive activities. And leaders must recognize that sometimes the most important thing is to pause and acknowledge feelings before productive behaviors can resume.
A crisis can be an opportunity to bring an organization closer together, but only if it is managed well.
What lessons have you learned while handling a crisis?