As businesses around the world grapple with the repercussions of the events
of 11 September, one US-based global executive gives his personal view of the
strategic issues arising for HR
The events of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
will have a long-lasting effect on the workplace, especially on businesses with
a global scope. Many of those businesses have headquarters in the US; many of
those business people are Americans. They are US citizens who have suddenly
lost the extreme level of comfort that comes with living here. We have been
isolated from terrorist threats, while other world centres have grown
accustomed to them.
There are several key strategic issues for HR arising from this which
include looking at changing needs for senior executives, global mobility and
At some point, senior managers and salespeople with global remits will have
to get back on a plane. It is fully expected that they will be able to get
themselves back through the cabin door. The real issue will be whether they can
get their families and friends to rationalise the risk.
I was speaking with Tom Mathews, the vice-president HR at AOL International
shortly after that terrible day. He was due to fly soon, a situation he was
fine with. The real issue was explaining to his wife, and especially his two
children, that what they had seen on TV would not happen to their father.
Maybe what companies should do, as well as focusing employment assistance programme
resources on counselling staff and getting managers back on the road, is to
ensure that the families of these travellers are understanding and supportive.
What happens when a senior executive is suddenly no longer able to fly – not
because of his concerns but because a child having nightmares or a crying wife
causes him to back away from his work?
How many senior execs or salespeople might be lost because of now very
legitimate family concerns? What impact might this have on carefully reviewed
Then there is the issue of global mobility. In the US at least, we seem at
last to be developing a strong cadre of global managers. These are people we
can deploy worldwide who have the skills and competencies to transfer their
expertise into other countries and cultures.
The slowing economy notwithstanding, we may see a slowing in expatriate
assignment starts, especially to emerging markets. Some of this will be cost
containment, some might be just trying to find people who will go. There will,
of course, be heightened family issues, again raising the importance of robust
Barry Kozloff, Selection Research International’s managing director, says he
still views pre-assignment assessments as key to predicting success. Families,
he points out, must be realistic about where they are going and what the risks
are, including the travel components. These were important aspects of selection
before but these have been heightened by the atrocities of 11 September. Our
businesses depend on having the right people in the right place – what impact
will this have on HR’s ability to deliver on this remit?
One positive offshoot of this may be that US companies will focus more on
developing senior managers worldwide and less on the expatriation of Americans.
At the same time it will raise new questions for managers being sent on
assignments to the US. Previously, the US would hardly be characterised as a
hardship assignment; now that we are a clear and current target, perceptions
Finally, how does this impact on our many diversity initiatives? In the US,
we are working hard to ensure we have embracing and retaining work
environments. Suddenly, however, as a culture, we have painted the devil on the
wall for a specific subsection of our minority staff. How do we preach and
engender inclusivity while headlines are so riveting? Newspapers are filled
with mug shots of the hijackers, all clearly Middle Eastern in descent.
In the US, by law, we have to allow Muslim (and any other employees) to pray
when they need to. Might workplace sentiment cause a chilling effect on this
key right – to worship? With all the limited information, but vivid news
coverage, how does HR ensure we can continue to guarantee this right? At an
office of a telecoms company here in the Washington DC area, several
contractors cheered upon learning about the attacks. How does the company
protect those people?
The phrase, "everything has changed now" keeps recurring in the
media here. It is very true, especially so for HR. There is a terrific
opportunity here for HR to demonstrate how the function impacts on the
We can play a pivotal role going forward in guiding our CEOs and senior
managers to ensure business gets back to normal as fast as possible. This will,
though, require us to move as fast as events unfold – we had better be up to
By Lance Richards who sits on the SHRM Global Forum Board of Directors
and the Editorial Advisory Board of Personnel Today’s sister publication,
On a wing and a prayer
How Lance Richards, a global exec, got on an aeroplane again
Less than two weeks after 11
September, I was invited to give the keynote address to about 500 HR
practitioners at the Kentucky State SHRM conference. But first I had to get there
– and that meant flying.
Security in US airports has never been comparable to those
overseas. From my travels, I had grown used to seeing uniformed soldiers with
automatic weapons or dogs in most airports. A two-hour check-in is standard in
most places abroad – never in the US. That is going to change now.
After working my way through the long queues at security and
the gate, I headed to the deli for a sandwich. I surveyed the restaurant,
ashamed at myself. I am a good HR professional but I found myself scanning the
crowd. Look what this has done to me – I was engaging in the worst sort of
Once aboard, I opened my magazine, then put it down. And I was
not the only one – everyone on the plane was looking straight ahead. As a
group, we were all mentally reviewing every passenger who stepped into the
There was an almost palpable sigh of group relief when the
cabin door was closed. No-one who had boarded the plane looked like a hijacker,
whatever one looks like. And I wasn’t the only one thinking this, as I looked
around and saw dozens of heads lean forward, now able to start their reading.
The pilot revved the engines, and we hurtled down the runway.
As the plane lifted off, the prayers all around me were so fervent, I swear I
could hear them.