(Karl Gehring / The Denver Post via nbcnews.com)
The recent slaughter of 12 people gunned down in a movie theater
in Aurora, Colorado got me thinking about terrifying events in general—and their implications for the workplace. I’ll get to this—but first a relevant story.
In the Fall of 2001, a month after the terrorist attack in New York City now known as 9/11, the then President of International for a global pharmaceutical company asked me to attend his annual full team meeting in Costa Rica. My task was to give a talk on what I thought were important themes—from a psychological perspective—for effective leadership in the 21st century. Of note was the fact that among the 25+ people in the room, I was one of only two Americans. While I don’t recall the specifics of my comments, I cited the threat of terrorism as a theme that warranted their attention.
As soon as I said that, a man from the Middle East nearly shouted, “We are sick and tired of hearing you Americans talk about terrorism! We have been living with terrorism for hundreds of years—get over it!” As I tried to regain my footing, another team member (from the United Kingdom) said to his colleague, “While I take your point, she has a point as well and it’s this: there is no longer a safe harbor in the world and this should mean something to all of us.”
That evening I was able to influence a productive conversation that resulted in the team agreeing to review existing policies and practices related to the threat of terrorism. The focus was to be on the overall well-being and safety of their employees, as well as on the stability of various work sites in the event of terrorist activity.
The psychological implications—or aftermath—of terrorist events in or near the workplace—be they ideologically motivated (as with 9/11) or not (as with the Aurora, Columbine, and Virginia Tech shootings) are huge. On an individual level symptoms can include flash backs, sleeplessness, free floating states of anxiety, depression and paranoia. Any one of these symptoms—or surely any of these symptoms in combination—can have significant adverse effects on an organizational level including diminished employee morale and productivity. Further, in this economic climate, fears about personal physical safety can be exacerbated by chronic concerns about employment continuity for self and other family members.
To help avoid employees’ increased psychological distress and decreased productivity in the wake of actual terrorist events—or even just the fear of the potential for same—here are some questions that can influence proactive steps in the workplace:
- Do we have established policies and practices that address issues related to both employee well-being and site (workplace) stability in the event of a terrorist event?
- If we do have such policies and practices, have they been reviewed recently and are they understood by all key managers? If we don’t, how are we going to go about getting them established?
- Have these policies and practices been distributed to all employees—not in an alarmist manner but in the spirit of proactive caring and planning?
- Do we have a relationship with an employee assistance program (EAP) vendor or other trained psychology professionals who would provide counseling in the wake of a terrorist event?
- Will key managers be able to objectively assess their own emotions in the face of a terrorist event and neither under or over-react if there is imminent physical danger or property destruction? If not, what training can help them with this type of assessment?
- Will key managers handle employees’ reactions in ways that help calm a terroristic situation and/or fears of same? If not, what training do they require?
- Will key managers ensure that employees’ fears, anxieties and/or concerns after a terroristic event are heard and addressed properly? If not, what steps need to be taken so that this does occur?
From global, national and personal perspectives, there do not appear to be many safe harbors in the world. But when it comes to the contagion called terrorism—whatever form it takes—workplace leaders have the opportunity to limit its destructive aftermath on employees and the perpetuation of their businesses by engaging in proactive planning now.