The HR Guy Is Hugging People On 9-11?

During the 1980’s, I had an old operations boss, Robert who used to say “You’re HR. Go hug them; make them feel better.” I know he said it to agitate me, but today I wish I could.

In the summer of 2001, I was asked to get involved in a project regarding the importance of succession planning and so I began to look for organizations that in my opinion would be the benchmark. I had recently been doing work with Alcoa who was headquartered in NYC, and had been scheduled to present to American Express on September the 13th, and then came the 11th. No building, no meeting. About 2 weeks after the attack I decided that companies impacted by the attack would be good places to start researching the project both literally, and figuratively.  I came to understand that succession planning was far more that org. charts and developmental assignments for high potentials; but rather about how we need to take care of each other.

Many companies lost people that day.  None lost more than Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm housed in the North Tower. Cantor lost 70% of its workforce that day, 658 people.  In fact no employee in the offices at the time of the attacks survived. On the morning of 9-11, Cantor CEO Howard Lutnick didn’t make it to the office as he was delayed by getting his son off to his first day of school. Other Cantor employees survived because they were out of the office for the day, or had yet to ride the elevators to the 101st floor of the WTC.

For those who survived, a decision was required; would they let what had they worked so hard to build collapse or would they push on, and in doing so honor those they had lost?  They returned to work, as coworker’s families, and friends grieved for those who were suddenly gone.  They pushed on.  Could you imagine looking for friends, hoping and praying that coworkers would somehow find a way to reach you, knowing in the back of your mind that they were probably gone?  Could you face the horror that would be a part of every moment of your day while working around the clock to bring back systems, communicate with customers, and grieve with employees?  They were back online in days and with a new purpose.

Lutnick decided that he and those that chose to continue were going to commit to doing something different by changing their outlook about what was important in doing business.  Cantor Fitzgerald’s goal became singular:  Take care of the families of the people lost and in doing so show those lost that they were remembered by loving and taking care of those people that they had loved when they were alive.  To date the company has contributed nearly $200 million dollars to the families of those former employees lost as well as paying for their family’s healthcare costs for the past ten years.

Lutnick was quoted as saying “Either we take care of our friends’ families or I’m not a human being.”  He realized that his employees and co-workers were friends and family first.  Today, the firm employs 1,500 people, and with just 10% of those being a part of the firm on 9-11, remembrance is important to both the old and new.  Every year family members of those lost speak about their loved ones.  Cantor-Fitzgerald is not putting the past behind them.  They are bringing families along, moving forward, and not seeking closure, but rather friendship.

My old friend Robert lost his brother on 9-11.  After the attacks he told me how he and his brother watched week after week, month after month, and year after year as the WTC Towers were being built when they were kids.  They were all each other had.  Robert missed his brother, and passed away within a year.  Love is a word we don’t use at work.  We should.  If you were here, Robert, I’d hug you.  You’re not though, and so I’ll share with a coworker today that I love them, and that they and their family are important to me.  I will hug.  Hugging is human, validating, and affirming.  This is how I will remember the 10th anniversary of 9-11 in the workplace, my home, and in my heart.


Posted on September 10, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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