Rising From the Rubble

News Updates

Ten years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, HR professionals review lessons learned. 

Ten years ago, Fred Alger Management Inc. was a highflying Wall Street investment company whose profitability was driven by the people who worked there. But when the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center collapsed in a devastating cloud of debris on Sept. 11, 2001, the core of Alger's staff, working on the 93rd floor in the doomed North Tower, perished.

"Taking 35 people away from the company—it's like running on one tire. That's the lifeblood of the company," says Robert Isacco, senior vice president and director of human resources at Alger.

Many companies lost workers that day when nearly 3,000 people died in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, as terrorists crashed four airplanes in a coordinated attack. In terms of percentage of workforce lost, Alger was among the hardest hit companies. It lost almost all of the investment team—the heart of the operation.

But its remaining employees helped the company rise from the ashes of the world's worst terrorist attack. Forty-one survivors remain with the company today. The number of Alger employees has risen from 136 before the attacks to 235. Total assets under company management have increased from $13 billion to
$17 billion.

The survivors, including some who were away from their desks that day and others who worked in a Jersey City, N.J., office, pressed through grief and long hours to rebuild the company and honor their dead colleagues.

President David Alger died in the attack. His brother, founder Fred Alger, came out of semi-retirement to lead the company through the crisis. Alumni who had left for other jobs returned to the fold. That meant experienced people could step in quickly, calming the fears of investors and readying Alger to go back to managing clients' money when the financial markets reopened Sept. 17.

"People who had left the company came back and are still with us today. They came back because they wanted to see the company rebuild," Isacco says.

‘You really can’t anticipate every contingency. But if you have a team in place and a plan that addresses how to start the ball rolling, that’s half the battle.’

Ten years later, employees still remember. At Alger's new Manhattan offices, a painting hangs prominently in the main hallway and features 35 candles—each one a little different, just like the individuals who perished. "It's a very emotional thing here," says Isacco, who joined the company in 2007, drawn by the strong bonds between the employees.

Dealing with the Fallout

Although the Sept. 11 attacks were unforeseen, Alger leaders had a crisis management plan that helped them cope and rebuild. The plan included employee assistance programs and a vacant duplicate trading office ready for use in an emergency. Crisis management experts say human resource departments can do plenty to prepare their companies to deal with the fallout of a disaster.

The Sept. 11 attacks brought that message home to many businesses. A recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll found that roughly half of the respondents' organizations updated their disaster preparedness plans as a result of the attacks. Nearly half opted for more crisis management training. Businesses also updated continuity plans, emergency communications plans and backup data storage systems.

But 10 years after the terrorist attacks, many leaders still don't have continuity or crisis management plans. Some started to make plans only to put them on the back burner, says Philip S. Deming, SPHR, principal of Philip S. Deming & Associates in King of Prussia, Pa., a consultancy that specializes in human resources and security risk management. The anniversary is a good reminder that companies need a plan to respond to disaster, he says.

George Boué, SPHR, vice president of human resources at Stiles Corp. in hurricane-prone Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says the art of crisis management involves setting up the right team of people in advance and thinking through what might be needed. For Stiles, a real estate development and property management company, that means counselors are on call, cleanup crews and roofers are under contract, and leaders think through what might affect workers, says Boué, a member of SHRM's Employee Health, Safety and Security Special Expertise Panel.

"People want peace of mind that their workplace has a high degree of safety," Boué says. "You really can't anticipate every contingency. But if you have a team in place and a plan that addresses how to start the ball rolling, that's half the battle."

Bruce Blythe, chief executive officer of Crisis Management International Inc., a consulting company in Atlanta, had 204 clients in New York City who needed help after the Sept. 11 attacks—so many that he had to rent space in a hotel there. Blythe says the first step is to have a crisis management plan and a "process guardian" who is in charge. HR leaders need to make sure there are redundancies in the crisis management team so if someone is injured or away when disaster strikes, there's a backup. The process guardian ensures that emergency drills are practiced, employees are trained to respond to disasters, and phone lists are up-to-date and printed out.

Accounting for People

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Ron Lopian, regional human resources director for Aon Risk Solutions in New York City, was grateful that in an electronic world he still had a paper copy of every employee's home phone number. Aon Risk Solutions, an Aon Corp. business, lost 176 workers in its World Trade Center office.

Lopian was Aon's regional HR director at the time of the tragedy. He was in the lobby of the South Tower when the plane hit that building. He escaped to the nearby New York City Hall Park, where he stayed with Aon colleagues until the towers started to collapse. Then he walked and ran uptown and took a ferry back to his home in New Jersey. From there, he spent a great deal of time communicating with the families of those Aon colleagues who were directly impacted.

Immediately following the attack, cell phone service was spotty, computers were destroyed and fleeing survivors were scattered. Figuring out who survived and how to get in touch with them is a key—and often difficult—job for HR managers after a disaster. For Lopian, it would have been even harder without the paper phone list. Even with the computer servers down until the following weekend, "We could continue to reach out to our New York colleagues," Lopian says.

"If you can't account for people, you can't respond to them," Blythe notes. "People are desperate at that time to find out where people are." The human side is often the most overlooked piece of preparing for a crisis, and HR managers have a crucial role in making sure employees are informed and helped during a disaster, he says.

HR leaders should think in advance about how they will reach people in an emergency, says Deming, a member of SHRM's Employee Health, Safety and Security panel. They must decide, for instance, whether to contact employees by social media or to put word of a missing colleague on Facebook or Twitter. To keep up with changing technologies, it's a good idea to update emergency plans periodically, he says.

At Stiles, each business unit head initiates a calling tree to track down workers after a disaster, Boué says. The company bought 50 corded land lines for key personnel. When cell towers are down and electricity is out, some types of older phones still work.

Moving Forward

On Sept. 12, 2001, Alger survivors headed to an emergency "recovery office" in Morristown, N.J., to start answering calls from family members looking for loved ones. Ten years later, company executives are still in contact with those family members. As head of HR, Isacco's job involves working with survivors' groups and organizations that honor the victims. He has also been taking Alger employees to the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the former World Trade Center complex to see it before it opens to the public this month.

Isacco is in charge of Alger's facilities, including the company's recovery office. The usually unoccupied office is stocked with resources to keep the company running—from coffee to computers. Alger can switch its phones to the recovery office and run its trading desk from there in the event of a disaster. Twice a year, Isacco operates a disaster recovery test to make sure there's space for everyone to work and that all files are backed up and available from the Morristown office. He also makes sure employees can dial in to company computers from home, if needed.

Executives at other companies might balk at the price of rent on an empty office. But Isacco says Alger's leaders learned its value firsthand.

And Alger uses vendors for payroll and benefits, thereby ensuring that data are available in case company servers are wiped out.

In terms of hiring, Aon filled the slots of its 176 lost employees gradually as the company rebuilt itself. "Our HR team has had a strong role in that," says David P. Prosperi, vice president of global public relations.

Alger weighed whether prospective hires would fit a company culture Isacco describes as that of a close-knit family with an attitude of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Building the right culture requires "hiring people who have a deeply rooted sense of loyalty," Isacco says. Survivors and returning workers instilled that in the new hires after the terrorist attacks, he says.

Pushing Information Out

In the aftermath of a disaster, leaders need to keep communication flowing. A hotline can push information out. Automated phone systems can help account for workers by calling employees and asking them to respond. That type of proactive communication lets employees know when and where they are expected to go back to work and how to access benefits.

Coordinate emergency communication with contractors if their workers regularly work alongside company employees. Unions should be kept up-to-date, too. Many hourly employees will call union officials before turning to company managers.

The more information that's out there, Deming says, the less likely calls from employees seeking answers to questions will jam phone lines. In a high-tech world, employees expect to get information quickly. A website can list what benefits are available, when the organization will reopen and whether hourly workers will be paid if the business is closed.

"The people who did it right in New York were pushing the information out, not just responding to inquiries," Deming says.

HR professionals also need to think about how they will deal with the families of employees who are victims and keep updated records of how to reach next of kin.

At Aon, HR established teams of colleagues to work personally with families of the employees who died, Lopian says.

Think about whether counseling will be expanded after a crisis; many companies in New York City offered enhanced counseling benefits after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Blythe says family representative programs, started first by airlines, can be useful. Each victim's family is assigned a team—preferably a man and a woman—that stays in contact with the family through the grieving process. The teams serve as a conduit of information from the company to the family. Their tasks range from explaining available benefits to doing small but helpful jobs to assist the family at home.

"They are employees of the company who get trained in advance and volunteer for it," Blythe says. "It's a tough job, but if you do it right, it's extremely rewarding." Few companies have a family representative program, he notes.

HR professionals also can make sure proper crisis counseling is available. They should check in advance with the employee assistance program provider to see what type of training its psychologists have in crisis counseling. Think about whether benefits like counseling will be expanded after a crisis; many companies in New York City offered enhanced counseling benefits after the Sept. 11 attacks, Blythe says.

Helping employees and looking out for their safety builds trust and loyalty, adds Boué of Stiles. "It creates more employee engagement to know management is looking out for their safety."

And HR professionals play a huge role.

"HR managers have an opportunity to be crisis champions by being prepared for the human side of crisis," Blythe says. "Crises are times that are going to lift you up or take you down."

The author is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.