September 18, 2001
HR Helps Employees Cope
By KEVIN FLOOD
U.S. companies with employee assistance programs had a crucial head start in helping workers deal with the trauma of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
Whether they offered programs in-house or through a vendor, companies ranging from Quaker Oats in Chicago to KPMG Consultants in Virginia already had procedures in place for connecting employees to mental-health professionals.
Some HR departments, however, still had the awful and hectic task of tracking down missing employees in New York and Washington, even as they tried to calm employees elsewhere.
One employer in that boat was the Hartford Financial Services Group, which has its headquarters in Hartford, Conn., but employs 26,000 worldwide. More than 300 of those employees worked in the No. 7 building of the World Trade Center, which fell because of its proximity to the center's main towers.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, "our attention was focused on the safety of those employees," Hartford spokeswoman Marnie Goodman said. Eventually, The Hartford learned all had escaped safely.
But in the midst of sorting through the chaos, another challenge arose: "Simultaneously, the company was fielding calls from family members" who couldn't reach their loved ones, according to Goodman. The Hartford tackled that by devoting personnel to work solely with them.
"It took a few days to track everybody down," she recounted, especially the employees who couldn't reach their homes in lower Manhattan or had gone to the homes of relatives or friends after escaping No. 7. The Hartford also checked on the status of employees who were traveling in other parts of the country at the time of the attacks.
Once all of the New York employees were located, Goodman said, it became a matter of helping them. For one thing, none had offices anymore, so six temporary ones were set up.
More important, The Hartford made sure to offer counseling in several forms. "Everybody was immediately offered one-on-one assistance," Goodman said. In addition, arrangements were made for group counseling, "so everyone could share their experience" and "deal together with the fear, anger, anxiety - all of the emotions."
The company also had to address more mundane but nonetheless important needs, like ensuring the employees received their pay. "Certain employees don't have direct deposit for their paychecks, so we had to make sure they got their pay in a timely manner," Goodman said.
The Hartford no longer had mail service in New York, but as an insurer it did have certain personnel walking around the city with checkbooks in hand: claims agents. The company simply authorized them to write paychecks.
Virginia-based defense contractor General Dynamics also had some tense hours on Tuesday, since some of its employees were at the Pentagon at the time of the attack there, but all escaped safely, said Norine Lyons, vice president of communications.
All employees were sent e-mails reminding them of the telephone number for the employee assistance program, she said, adding that counselors also offered employees tips on how they could explain the attacks to their children.
Hiring the right vendor helps
The Quaker Oats Company in Chicago contracts with Magellan Health Services for its EAP but relies on the Ceridian Corp. to administer its work-life program. Joan Cantwell, manager of employee health and wellness at Quaker Oats, had high praise for the services of both.
Quaker Oats employees, who were sent home early Tuesday, like nearly all workers in downtown Chicago, have the benefit online coping tips from Ceridian, along with off-site counseling. At some company sites, nurses are available.
Cantwell noted that because Quaker Oats recently merged with PepsiCo., it will be using different vendors at the start of 2001. In fact, she said, her department was hosting representatives of those vendors when the attacks occurred and had to help them get home to New York.
KPMG Consulting in McLean, Va., employs about 10,000 people worldwide, and some of those in the home office spent Tuesday manning an impromptu hotline to ensure that none of their colleagues were trapped in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.
"There was a period of 12 hours where we were on pins and needles," spokesman John Schniedawind recalled. It helped, he said, that traveling employees "pretty much took it upon themselves" to phone in, since they realized that the company would be worrying about them. No employees were lost, he said.
KPMG CEO Rand Blazer took the lead by sending all employees e-mail updates on such things as the availability of the company's EAP and the status of air travel. "It sounds trite, but we truly are a people company," Schniedawind said. "People are our best asset, and we try to treat them accordingly."
One immediate change at KPMG, he said, is in the Traveler's Bill of Rights the company has for employees. It already required that employees be allowed to spend at least a full weekend at home before resuming travel on company business, he said. Now, it also stipulates that they be posted as close as possible to their homes, to cut down on the need for travel at all.
Hearing it from the top
Like KPMG, The Hartford decided that it was important for employees to receive information directly from the top, in this case, Chairman and CEO Ramani Ayer. The Hartford used its Web site, e-mail, and other channels to get news out, particularly the status of the New York employees, according to Goodman, the company spokeswoman.
Everybody, she said, was reminded of the toll-free number for the EAP. Other steps the company took to help employees through the ordeal:
- Giving them opportunities to help, by providing contact information for the Red Cross and other relief agencies, and facilitating donations of toiletry, t-shirts, and other items.
- Holding a "red white and blue day" on Friday, which meant encouraging them to dress in patriotic colors.
- Allowing them to watch newscasts on the television sets placed in cafeterias, entrance ways, and other areas. The TVs are normally tuned to CNBC and company programs, but on Tuesday, the company ordered them tuned to news programs.
As for travel, The Hartford is "encouraging employees to conduct their long-distance meetings by telephone and teleconferencing," Goodman said. Asked if The Hartford is joining other employers in reviewing its travel policy, she replied, "Not at this point. But we're asking to people to stay close to home."