‘The ultimate HR act:’ These lessons from 9/11 remain relevant today

Two decades later, HR leaders are dealing with a different, more disruptive crisis but one that is also testing what it means to address employee needs. 
By: | September 8, 2021

Minutes after the first hijacked plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Alayne Gentul went into action.

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As the senior vice president and director of human resources for Fiduciary Trust International, the 44-year-old married mother of two helped evacuate her colleagues from the 90th floor of South Tower. According to reports of that day 20 years ago this week, Gentul then went up seven flights to help more workers leave the building. Her husband said she called to tell him she loved him and her two sons. 

According to media reports based on eyewitness statements, Gentul was last seen holding the door open for co-workers in a smoke-filled stairwell on the 97th floor. Fiduciary Trust ultimately lost 97 employees and business partners that day. “I’m sure she did as much she could to get people out or comfort them,” Nora Halton, one of Gentul’s co-workers, said in a book chapter titled The Effects of 9/11 on the Management of Human Capital in the United States by Jack N. Kondrasuk“… this is the ultimate HR act.”

Two decades after coordinated terrorist attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, human resource executives are dealing with another unthinkable crisis that also is testing the limits of their job expertise, business continuity plans, and crisis and people management skills.

While the tragedies of 9/11 took place on a single day and disrupted business for the following week or two—airline travel was suspended for roughly a week and several Wall Street firms built brand new trading floors to commence deal-making the next week, for example—the COVID-19 pandemic is entering its 18th month. At the height of the pandemic, on Jan. 27, 2021, a total of 4,102 people died in the United States; since its start, 649,000 have died of the disease in the U.S. and nearly 4.6 million worldwide.

The current pandemic arguably has had a greater disruption on the American worker, as companies in March 2020 sent millions of employees home nearly overnight to work there indefinitely. Before the pandemic, only 6% of Americans worked remotely. This figure rose to more than one-third of Americans by May 2020, according to Remote Work Before, During, and After the Pandemic, a report from the National Council of Compensation Insurance. The move forced lightning-fast digital transformations, required new investment in workplace technology and brought on an epidemic of burnout and mental health worries, especially for women in the workforce.

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According to HR analysts and industry experts, human resource executives are dealing with a very different crisis than the aftermath of 9/11 and are relying on new technology to address employee needs.

For starters, 9/11 took place before the days of social media, ubiquitous smartphones and reliable video conferencing. Likewise, cloud computing, computer and telecom networks, and reliable wifi were years off, especially for American workers forced to work from home. Although the U.S. had an estimated 118 million cell phones in operation in 2001, payphones, pagers, Blackberries and dial-up internet were still the industry standard. Today, more than 300 million cell phones are in operation—one for 97% of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The world was such a different place just 20 years ago,” says George LaRocque, founder of WorkTech“From a technology perspective, we didn’t have the kind of maps that we have now. We didn’t have any of the things that we take for granted if you must shelter in place, like needing to get food; you couldn’t Door Dash or Uber Eats something.”

According to Jason Averbook, CEO and co-founder of HR consultancy Leapgen, many of the business continuity efforts that helped employees to work remotely during COVID-19 were created in response to 9/11 and even Y2K, when technology experts feared that the computer microprocessors would not be able to understand the year 2000 in its internal code. Thankfully, the end of the world didn’t happen as some industry experts feared.

Innovation from crisis

Months after the attack, Averbook recalls discussing a concept called Workforce 2020, when people would use phones that were actual miniature computers and wristwatches that could display the wearer’s heart rate, and video conferencing could replace the standard conference room.

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“We were all writing and reading articles about Workforce 2020 in 2002 and people thought we were fricking crazy,” says Averbook, a Top 100 HR Tech Influencer who will be speaking Oc.t 1 at the HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas. “Like, what do you mean there might not be a physical office? What do you mean that we might not live in the same city or state where we work?”

Connecting with employees is now a no-brainer, thanks to smartphones and social media apps like Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Greg Pryor, executive director at Workday, was on Wall Street on Sept. 11 when the towers came down and the surrounding area lost all cell tower service. The difficulty in reaching loved ones has not left him.

“I remember so clearly that I was unable to contact my wife and my family. In fact, it was many, many hours until my colleague was able to call his mom in California, who called my wife and told her that we were alive,” Pryor says. 

The human factor

Caring for employees and their mental health took greater importance after 9/11, an emphasis that has only grown during the pandemic as HR leaders focus on employee wellness, taking regular pulse checks on wellbeing and employee engagement.

“Today we are more aware of mental wellness, the employee experience and putting the employee first,” says LaRocque. “When there’s a crisis, it can bring out the best in people, and I think in the workplace, that’s what I saw 20 years ago. And that’s what I’ve witnessed globally now: The conversations are about individuals, teams and their wellness and how we are supporting them.”

For Averbook, the biggest lesson that came from 9/11 for HR was one of empathy—a lesson that has extended to the current pandemic.

After the events of 20 years ago, the mindset was about being safe, then deciding to move forward and rebuild. “It’s like what’s going on in New Orleans right now [after Hurricane Ida]. We have customers in New Orleans right now who are in that crisis mode, but they know that that mode is short-lived.”

But Averbook predicts the after-effects of events like 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic will forever change human resources. 

“As an HR function, we have to think about how we’re empathetic to situations all the time, not just at these crises, but all the time,” Averbook says. “And we have to keep in mind that there’s the word ‘human’ in human resources.”

Phil Albinus is HR Tech Editor for HRE. He has been covering personal and business technology for 25 years and has served as editor and executive editor for a number of financial services, trading technology and employee benefits titles. He is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and lives in the Hudson Valley with his audiologist wife and three adult children. He can be reached at palbinus@lrp.com and followed on Twitter @philalbinus.

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