Ten Years after the Unthinkable

On the 10th anniversary of the largest-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil, companies most directly affected by 9/11 honor employees whose lives were lost, and provide support to current employees. HR leaders should be careful, however, to let workers handle this historic date in their own way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011
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Sunday will mark 10 years since two hijacked passenger jets tore into the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center, laying waste to an enduring symbol of American prosperity and taking more than 2,700 lives in the process.

The unspeakable scene that played out in lower Manhattan that morning, along with coordinated strikes targeting the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the Capitol building in Washington, forever altered the way millions of Americans think and feel about their own safety, security and relationships with those close to them.

Sept. 11 also changed the way surviving employees in those areas -- and beyond -- think about their jobs and co-workers.

Thousands of U.S. employees lost colleagues and friends in the attacks, and were left with deep wounds that figure to be reopened during this anniversary as many companies -- especially those with operations in New York and other areas hit hardest by the attacks -- plan tributes and memorials.

This unfortunate milestone is certainly an appropriate time to remember and reflect on co-workers and family members who were lost, says Richard Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee-assistance company.

He notes that many of his company's New York and D.C.-based clients are putting together memorial ceremonies to mark the date, but adds that HR must be sure to let employees react -- or not react -- to this anniversary however they see fit.

"Some employees may want to attend such a ceremony, and others may want to go on with 'business as usual,' " says Chaifetz. "HR leaders should be sensitive to this, and [should] be careful not to open old wounds for those who don't wish to relive the tragedy in the work setting."

Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the fifth-largest employer in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, had 1,900-plus employees spread over 10 floors of the North Tower. Amazingly, only nine Empire employees and two consultants died.

In the days and weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Empire has honored those workers, along with other 9/11 victims and their families, in a variety of ways, says Raymond Garcia, the company's human resources manager.

"Empire's president and CEO, Mark Wagar, has made it a priority to connect with all 4,000 ... employees in a series of three written communications that focus on various aspects of 9/11, including volunteer opportunities, information about the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, personal reflections from employees, remembrances of those employees who died during the attacks, and motivational messages," says Garcia.

Empire has also recognized the anniversary by becoming a platinum-level sponsor of the 2011 World Police & Fire Games, which were held in New York from Aug. 26 through Sept. 5.

The Games, conceived to coincide with the 10th anniversary, boasted more than 18,000 firefighters and police officers representing 70 countries to compete in 65 sporting events.

The Games also included a candlelight vigil to acknowledge those lost on 9/11, and a thank-you ceremony for New Yorkers to "express gratitude for the international support that flooded New York City after that tragic day," according to Empire.

In addition, Garcia says, Empire is a sponsor of the 9/11 Memorial Dinner with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and will host a guest speaker from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, who will provide employees at Empire's Liberty Plaza building -- which overlooks Ground Zero -- an opportunity to discuss their feelings regarding the events of 9/11.

Perhaps no organization better understands the range of emotions attached to 9/11 than Cantor Fitzgerald, the global financial-services firm that lost all 658 of its World Trade Center-based employees -- about two-thirds of its total workforce.

While the organization was shaken to its core on 9/11, the firm wasted little time honoring the memories of its fallen employees and it continues in that vein to this day.

Eight days after the attacks, Cantor Fitzgerald pledged to distribute 25 percent of its profits for the next five years, and committed to providing healthcare benefits for 10 years, to the families of those who were killed in the attacks.

In 2006, the company had paid a total of $180 million, along with an additional $17 million raised by a relief fund run by Cantor CEO and Chairman Howard Lutnick's sister, Edie.

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Cantor has continued its efforts in recent years, creating a website for the Cantor family of companies and all employees of eSpeed, Inc., Cantor Fitzgerald and TradeSpark to commemorate those lost in the 9/11 attacks.

In addition to a Tribute Directory where visitors can leave messages dedicated to fallen Cantor co-workers and family members, the site also provides background on the Cantor Relief Fund and a link to more information on the fund. 

"The most important thing HR leaders and organizations can do," says James Thornbrugh, clinical supervisor at Magellan Behavioral Health, an Avon, Conn.-based EAP, "is be aware and recognize that employees may experience a reoccurrence of symptoms that can manifest [themselves] in performance issues."

Thus, HR should make sure to provide information on EAP services and availability via posters, letters, electronic message boards and forums, he says.

In addition to fear or sadness, employees may exhibit physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, back pain or nausea; may withdraw from co-workers and supervisors; or experience difficulty concentrating on even routine tasks.

"Employees and leaders are likely not to associate the symptoms with the anniversary," Thornbrugh points out.

It's up to HR, therefore, to remind employees and supervisors "that the symptoms will pass ... . If symptoms are more severe or don't alleviate quickly, though, supervisors may want to offer EAP or other mental-health services," he says.

HR leaders should also ensure that communication lines are open to employees during this difficult time and make themselves as visible and accessible to the workforce as possible, Thornbrugh says. But, he adds, HR professionals should remember to do as much listening as they do talking.

"Taking time to listen to an employee may be the most valuable thing you can do. There does not need to be a response, but just an ear for the employee to tell their story or say what they have to say," he says.

"Peers and colleagues supported each other in the days, months and years after 9/11 simply by listening and being present," Thornbrugh says. "Leadership needs to continue to support those naturally formed bonds."

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