Coping with Workplace Grief

Finance managers are struggling to balance employee grief with the need to be productive. It's ''back to business,'' but it's certainly not ''business as usual.''

Like most Americans, Plantronics Inc. CFO Barbara Scherer watched the events of September 11 on her television set, feeling helpless as the horrific scenes unfolded. And, like many finance executives, she was suddenly thrust into a new type of leadership role, one requiring emotional as well as strategic savvy.

“We were concerned about the impact of grief and stress on our employees,” says Scherer, who immediately began tracking down traveling employees and sending E-mails regarding their safety. The Santa Cruz, California-based telephone-headset maker has no offices in New York or Washington, D.C., but in the immediate aftermath, she says, “we wanted to let managers know that it wasn’t a sign of poor job performance if people were forgetful or emotional.”

Indeed, those are normal signs, say crisis-management experts, and the more coddling and communication a company can provide at the moment of trauma, the more likely employees are to heal quickly. But given the many tentacles of the terrorist attacks, the real test may come as the drama fades but fear and grief persist.

“Very often, managers want to do business as usual as quickly as possible,” says Dan Tuft, president of ResponseWorks Inc., an employee-assistance program based in Lambertville, New Jersey. But often “that creates anger and resentment in employees.” To keep morale up in the months after a trauma, he says, it’s crucial for senior managers to be visible and willing to address employees’ needs individually. “They need to hear that you want to hear how they’re doing, even if it’s just one walk-through.”

Sadly, Many Models

That’s a lesson Kerr-McGee Corp. executives took to heart when the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing knocked some of the windows out of the $10+ billion oil and gas concern’s headquarters and claimed the lives of 12 employees’ immediate-family members. From the day of the blast until the location reopened, a team of executives and managers called each of the 750 local employees daily and visited those who needed extra attention, says CEO (then-COO) Luke Corbett. When the building reopened a week later, all of the top executives were stationed by the door, passing out information about the recovery effort, along with ribbons and hugs. For months afterward, the attendance policy remained flexible and counselors were available. “Most people were functioning very well within two or three months of the tragedy, and actually wanted to get back to work,” says Corbett, “but they needed to see we were taking care of the human side of the equation.”

Dealing with the human side is an issue facing an unprecedented number of finance executives this time around. And many, like David Scanlan, vice president of finance at Sodexho’s corporate services division, are struggling to balance employee grief with the need to be productive. “It’s back to business,” he says, “but certainly not business as usual.”

Sodexho, which had 46 employees in the World Trade Center and was reporting 2 missing at press time, experienced “about a week’s worth of distraction” related to the incident. But that distraction was magnified for some employees, says Scanlan. For example, some were still “skittish” about flying in early October, so he bent the mandatory attendance rule for his annual fall finance meeting in Denver, and allowed at least 3 employees to participate via video- and Web-conferencing as well as videotape. “We’ve never bent the mandatory-attendance rule before, but this year we’ll be flexible,” says Scanlan.

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