THOUGHT LEADER: Remembering 9/11 with a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for employees

How prepared is corporate America to manage the workplace issues surrounding the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy? What will happen on the job for most Americans this Wednesday? For the past several weeks, we've been asked those and related questions by many clients who want counsel on how best to memorialize the date. At the same time, some clients are wondering whether they should even commemorate it at all.

How prepared is corporate America to manage the workplace issues surrounding the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy? What will happen on the job for most Americans this Wednesday? For the past several weeks, we've been asked those and related questions by many clients who want counsel on how best to memorialize the date. At the same time, some clients are wondering whether they should even commemorate it at all.

American business clearly was the target of the attacks. Numerous businesses headquartered or operating in the World Trade Center suffered significant and direct losses of both people and property. But whether your company or employees have been directly or indirectly impacted, we believe the date should be acknowledged. Companies must be prepared for a range of aftereffects from the event that shocked the entire world into a realization that we would all forever be changed, as well as the normal human, emotional fallout the day will likely bring. As managers of workforces ranging in size from 200 to 350,000, this is a matter that requires serious thought. Experts in the field of work-life and crisis management expect the emotional responses to the 9/11 anniversary among employees to vary from absenteeism, apathy, tardiness, laziness to increase in substance abuse, and workplace conflict. Without trivializing the tragedy, companies can proactively prepare for the anniversary while fostering a healthier work environment to offset those potentially negative responses. The manner in which a company chooses to recognize 9/11 should reflect its own unique culture and identity, the diversity of its workforce and its local community, and the personal, cultural, and religious customs within its diverse workforce. How one company chooses to commemorate the date may be totally unsuitable for another - even one in the same industry or in the same community. For that reason, the development of commemorative activities isn't a "one size fits all" process. We believe it best to acknowledge the tragedy and its aftereffects on people in a low-key fashion, by providing appropriate opportunities for employees to reflect and remember - either alone or in groups, as they see fit - while continuing to conduct business in as normal a fashion as possible. No planned commemorative activity should be mandatory, nor should pressure be brought to bear to encourage anyone to participate. Our client partners are pursuing a range of responses. None is ignoring the special date altogether in a business-as-usual approach, nor will any take the opposite course by closing for the day. Instead, their responses include a range of ideas, such as flags flown at half-staff at all facilities, subtle and tasteful remembrances like lapel pins, a moment of silence at 8:46am EDT, and corporate support for local observances. Other possibilities include more workplace access to cable TV news coverage of anniversary events. Some clients are suggesting that employees spend quiet reflective time with friends and family, while asking that they minimize business meetings and events. Others are using the day to highlight the volunteerism within the company during the past year and what employees have been doing. Multinationals have the added consideration of how to handle this internationally. It was not just an American tragedy. Among the victims were hundreds of foreign nationals who should be recognized. And remember that in France, the headlines the next day spoke of a common bond in the tragedy, one saying, "We are all Americans." Numerous clients, if not all, are distributing brief memos from their CEOs to all employees - both on paper and via e-mails - honoring the date and acknowledging people's range of feelings. One client will be using its in-house closed circuit video system to carry brief messages from the CEO and the head of its largest union. In truth, a company that acknowledges the anniversary not only demonstrates a subtle opposition to terrorism, respect for the victims, and the promotion of social tolerance and understanding, but also helps employees continue to work through the tragic events in the familiar, comforting context of their jobs. The company is showing that it recognizes the simple but important truth that continuing to go about regular business is a defiant gesture in opposition to terrorism - and that's a consoling message to everyone.
  • Bob Feldman is president and chief executive of GCI Group, a worldwide PR firm and a unit of Grey Global Group.

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