An Action Plan for the Anniversary of September 11

With the anniversary of the events of September 11 approaching, many managers are wondering, what is the appropriate way to respond? Should you memorialize the event, mourn, pay respects, or ignore it? There are many perspectives and issues to consider before you make a decision. Since I did a lot of work initially on how a company should respond to the initial 9/11 event, I thought a follow-up “toolkit” article might be appropriate for the anniversary. Unfortunately, there is no magic answer or formula as to what actions corporations should take. One thing is certain, though: don’t try a “business as usual” approach. How employees view corporate responsibility has changed as a result of 9/11 and other recent corporate missteps. Considering all of the recent corporate scandals in the news, showing that your corporation cares is a reasonable first step. The bottom line is, whatever you do, it must fit your culture and situation. Individual managers and corporations need to allow their employees the time and the flexibility they need to reflect, mourn, or just work through any anxiety that might occur on that day. Managers can begin the process of planning for the anniversary by asking workers individually, and teams collectively, what they (and their families) need and providing it to the point where it exceeds their expectations. If your company lost employees in the events of that day, you need to respond differently than if your employees and your firm had no direct loss from 9/11. Under no circumstances should you ignore the event, because widespread media coverage alone will ensure that your employees have it on their minds. The best and managers and HR people will anticipate problems and ensure that their organizations respond appropriately. Rather than outlining a detailed plan that might not fit your organization. I have instead provided a “toolkit” of tips that you can select from. They are separated into the appropriate categories and are listed below. A Manager’s 9/11 Anniversary Response Toolkit Even if terrorist events occurred thousands of miles away from where you work, you still need to realize that your employees’ memory of the events of that day are likely to be strong ó and that media coverage will highlight those memories. Since it’s hard to accurately gauge the degree of anxiety, it is better to over-prepare and show that your organization is sensitive and caring. Actions that your organization can take are listed below in seven general categories:

  1. Memorializing the tragedy
  2. Planning for anxiety
  3. Communicating what you are trying to do
  4. Time off
  5. Special case: If one of your employees lost a friend or loved one in the event
  6. Special case: If your company was directly involved in the event or its aftermath
  7. Additional things you might consider

1. Memorializing the tragedy. For some organizations, the best way to approach the anniversary is to recognize your employees need to “do something” to pay their respects or contribute that day. Your organization can also do something by leaving a positive and lasting legacy of 9/11. Some possible actions steps include:

  • Volunteering. Allow your workers to spend the morning or the entire day volunteering at local not-for-profit organizations or schools (especially those impacted by the event).
  • Donate leave time. Allow your employees to donate the equivalent dollar value of some portion of their vacation (or sick) leave time to a charity organization.
  • Employee donations. Provide a temporary memorial in the lobby and allow employees to donate funds to an appropriate charity. Then match their contributions.
  • A scholarship. Establish a scholarship (for the sons or daughters of your employees) in the name of the heroes and victims of 9/11.
  • Recognize public servants. Invite local fire, rescue, military, the Red Cross, or police to your site for lunch, or financially support one of their events. Also recognize your own employees in the National Guard that served in post-9/11 security situations.
  • A moment of silence. Hold a moment (or hour) of silence during the same hour as the first attack (in your time zone).
  • Anniversary events. Sponsor or co-sponsor local events related to the anniversary. Allow your employees to help out or attend.
  • Company donations. Donate a percentage of your revenue for that day to a charity related to (or even not related to) the disaster. If you have “retail” facilities in New York or Washington, donate all of the profits from those facilities (that day) to charity.
  • Donate products. Send samples of your products to the New York (or your local) fire and police departments to recognize their loss and their efforts.
  • Speak. If your organization is somehow involved in disasters through its products or services, offer managers and employees the opportunity to speak at schools or local events.
  • Concern for families. Parents will be concerned for how young children will react to the media converge on that day. Consider a range of options from “bring your young children to work,” including families in company events, to allowing the use of sick time to be with children. In case of doubt, ask parents what they need.

2. Planning for anxiety or stress. On the day of the anniversary, employees are likely to have heightened awareness about additional terrorism and a general anxiety because of the media coverage surrounding the anniversary. The negative impacts of increased stress or anxiety can range from bad customer service to workplace accidents. Here are some actions steps that can help you to deal with and hopefully reduce stress and anxiety:

  • Avoid flying. Allow employees who are feeling concerned to avoid flying that day (especially those who flew or were stranded on 9/11).
  • Identify anxiety. Educate managers about the warning signs of anxiety, stress, and other problems that might require their attention. Suggest tools or approaches they should use.
  • Counseling. Notify employees (and managers) of grief or anxiety counseling options that will be available that day under their benefits plan.
  • Harassment. Prepare for any degree of discomfort that people of Middle Eastern descent or of Muslim faiths might feel. As unlikely as it may be, also prepare for any potential harassment by customers or even employees.
  • Designate a leader. Designate an HR person to be the primary management contact for issues related to the anniversary of the event. Be sure that they are qualified to lead this important effort.
  • Response team. Form a committee, or “response team,” to both prepare the plan for that day and to help the designated HR person respond to issues that occur on the anniversary.
  • Productivity issues. Develop a “general malaise” plan in the event that some employees (who have no recent performance issues) are less productive or are just distracted that day. Be tolerant.
  • Prepare for the worst. Develop a “worst-case scenario” plan (listing possible problems and the way to handle each) for the unlikely event that a significant number of your employees undergo a high level of grief or stress that day. Communicate that plan to your managers.
  • Local control. Allow each manager to hold an individual event in their unit, as they deem appropriate. Provide them with several scripts to use.
  • Media coverage. Allow employees to tune in to the news coverage on TV or radio where it is appropriate. As an alternative, tape the key events and replay them in break rooms and during lunch.
  • NY/DC special issues. If you have a facility in the New York or Washington area, allow your managers there to develop their own unique plans, as they deem appropriate, because stress levels will be higher and more elaborate events will be held in those locations (see #5 below for some suggestions). People who work for airlines are also likely to need special consideration.

3. Communicating to employees what you are trying to do. There is a significant chance that what you are trying to do will be misinterpreted because so many emotions are involved in the events related to 9/11. Here are some suggested actions steps relating to communication:

  • Make your goals clear. “Overcommunicate” the purpose of what you’re trying to do. Be prepared for responses ranging from “that’s not appropriate” to “that’s not enough.” Make sure employees know what you’re doing for the anniversary and why. Educate them both for themselves and in case their families or even customers inquire about what the firm is doing.
  • Pre-test your ideas. Because emotions are highly charged, make certain you run every idea and plan by individuals who are sensitive to these issues to cull out questionable ones (consider including EAP professionals, people with Middle Eastern backgrounds, Jews and Muslims, or any employee “affinity” group or club related to the issues involved).
  • Give employees a voice. Survey your employees or ask a few “opinion leaders” what they think would be an appropriate response for the company to take. Consider an online “pulse” survey that quickly allows you to get a idea of what employees want.
  • Hold an event. Hold an “all hands” event that morning to allow employees to share their feelings on the event at the same time. Also use it to show them what other employees and the firm are doing to help others.
  • FAQ. Develop a frequently asked questions list and distribute it to managers or post it on your website.
  • Educate employees. Post information of the symptoms associated with anxiety and a checklist of what employees should do when the symptoms occur.
  • Information on the website. Add an information section to your corporate website that covers issues related to the anniversary of the event. Consider opening a moderated electronic chat room to allow employees to express and share their opinions that day.
  • CEO message. Have the CEO send a message to all employees recognizing the event and outlining your company’s actions to recognize the importance of the event. Consider giving September 11th “a name” (Remembrance Day, Never Forget Day, Pull Together Day, etc.) so that employees know you care.
  • Rumors. Develop a mechanism to quickly “squelch” any rumors that occur that day.

4. Time off options in your plan.

  • Use leave. Allow employees to pre-schedule that day off as a sick or vacation day.
  • Scheduling. Allow flexible scheduling, work at home options, or more liberal “shift switching” for employees who would like to spend time with their families but cannot afford to take unpaid time off.
  • Morning off. Let individual employees stay home or attend related events that morning and come to work in the afternoon.
  • Late opening. Open your facility late that day so that all employees can spend time with their families during the hour of the first plane crash.
  • Giving blood. Allow individual employees to take time off work to give blood in order to meet their need to “do something” to show they care.
  • Matching pay. Allow employees to take a few hours of paid time off that day to work at local charities. In addition, donate the equivalent amount of their salary for those hours to that charity.

5. Special case: If one of your employees lost a friend or loved one in the event. If an individual employee lost a relative or friend (or is in any way emotionally involved) you need to treat them differently than the rest of the organization. In addition to some of the suggestions listed above, you might also consider:

  • Identify and ask the employee. If you know who was impacted, ask these individuals directly what actions they would like you to take. If you don’t know them, then informally ask managers and well-connected employees who they think may have lost someone, or post a note on your company’s website, bulletin board, etc., asking individuals that want to come forward to contact HR.
  • Be careful of publicity. Be extra careful that you don’t highlight an individual employee’s personal “losses” without their consent.
  • Paid time off. Allow employees who lost someone close to take one or more days off with pay.
  • Make managers aware. Inform their managers so that they can be aware of the high likelihood of potential anxiety.
  • Provide opportunities. Provide a mechanism where an affected employee can honor their lost one(s). For example, provide funds for a trip to New York, Pennsylvania, or Washington; donate money in their behalf to a charity; offer a company scholarship in their name; or provide an opportunity for them to speak at the company event memorializing that day.
  • Donate leave time. Allow your employees to donate some portion of their vacation (or sick) leave time to another employee who has lost a loved one so they have more time to recover.

6. Special case: If your company was directly involved in the event. If your company was directly involved in the event or its aftermath, the likelihood of anxiety is significantly higher. In addition to the suggestions listed earlier, you might also consider some of these:

  • Closing. Seriously consider closing the facility for that morning or the entire day.
  • Work at home. Allow employees to work at home that day.
  • Provide speakers. offer to send managers and employees who had direct experience with the event or its aftermath to speak at local schools or organizations.
  • Counseling. I recommend that you have grief counselors onsite during that day (or that entire week).
  • Include the families. Make every attempt to involve employee’s families in your planning and events were appropriate. Many employees may want to be with their children all day. Also, check out what the local schools are planning and encourage parents to participate.
  • Public recognition. Consider placing newspaper ads, sponsoring memorial events or using other ways to publicly recognize those that were lost.
  • Holiday schedule. Shift to a “holiday” schedule to allow more workers to spend time with their families. Consider shifting a floating holiday to 9/11 to honor those that were lost.
  • Recovery progress. Provide a progress report to highlight how the company has “come back” as a way of celebrating the efforts of your employoees after the event (and reinforcing their sense of job security).
  • Update your response plan. Use the anniversary as an opportunity to ask employees if there’s “anything else” that can or should be done that wasn’t part of the initial “reaction plan” to aid victims and their families. Also consider “re-funding” or increasing the amounts of scholarships and other support funds provided to survivors.
  • Memorial. If you haven’t already, place a permanent memorial to the victims.
  • Allow employees to share. Provide a communication mechanism where employees at company facilities that are not in New York or Washington can communicate their feelings and respects to employees in the those two directly impacted locations.
  • Hold an event. Bring in speakers who did something positive after 9/11 to memorialize the day and then encourage employees to “move on.”

7. Additional things you might consider (for all firms). In addition to the above categorized items, there are some general things that organizations can do on the 9/11 anniversary day.

  • Global locations. Develop a plan for employees who are in global locations to heighten their awareness and be prepared for possible repercussions. Contact your employees in international locations that might be at risk for terrorism or retaliation. Ask them what they need and respond rapidly to their requests.
  • Customers and suppliers. If your company’s suppliers or customers suffered a major impact as a result of the event, consider a plan of action that acknowledges their losses and shows that you care.
  • Postpone major activities. Postpone any corporate announcements, large-scale events or major business decisions until after the anniversary to avoid a negative public and employee reaction.
  • Landmark buildings. If any of your employees currently work in a “landmark building” be prepared for an added level of hallway conversations and anxiety.
  • Review your disaster plan. Use the anniversary as a reminder to review your company’s disaster plan. Also be prepared for the unlikely event that another terrorism event occurs during that day or at any other time. Also, if you haven’t already, update your insurance policy for terrorism.
  • Involve unions. Where applicable, involve unions in the planning of events and financially support any events they might want to hold.

Conclusion Although it’s been an entire year since 9/11, to many individuals it may seem like only yesterday. It’s important to anticipate your employees’ need to honor and remember both those that were lost and those that contributed significantly to the efforts following the tragedy. Since there’s no way to identify which specific employees were impacted the most and what their needs will be, you will need to develop broader plans that include all employees. You must be prepared for any anxiety or stress, which could affect an employee’s health and safety. In addition, this anniversary is also an opportunity to review what you have done during the last year and, without being callous, to reinforce your employees’ belief that you are a “caring” organization. If you haven’t already, it’s time for managers and HR professionals to take a leadership role to ensure that the day after the anniversary both you and your employees will know that your firm went “beyond the call of duty” to provide employees with an unequaled opportunity to reflect, spend time with family and friends, or to mourn. Given the generally bad public image that corporations have earned lately, this is an opportunity to show that you are different!

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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