· 3 min read · Features

In the line of fire, you dont turn to bean-counters


In the light of the World Trade Centre disaster, Richard Donkin considers the HR directors role and how it may have to change

Sometimes events occur which we recognise as turning points in our lives. Sometimes the events are so significant that they shift attitudes across whole societies. The attack on New Yorks World Trade Centre was one such event.

The day it happened I was at the head office of Pearson, owners of the Financial Times, meeting with a colleague in a fellow Pearson company. He told me that a sister company had 65 people working in one of the twin towers. At that stage the extent of the disaster was not apparent. As I left, I bumped into Marjorie Scardino, Pearsons chief executive, and David Bell, director for people, Both were grave-faced and in a hurry. Was everyone all right, I asked? Bell was unable to say. The trade centre has just collapsed, he said, all of it.

Walking down the stairs I had an image in my mind of a twisted metal box, leaning over perhaps, but nothing like the image I witnessed on the TV screen shortly afterwards. There were no people in this mental image, only empty buildings where many had been killed in the initial impact and survivors had been evacuated on to the streets. Not until I saw the pictures did the enormity of the human loss begin to dawn.

The next day every Pearson employee received an email from the chief executive. Our colleagues were safe, it said. It also included this parting comment: There is no meeting you have to go to and no plane you have to get on if you dont feel comfortable doing it.

I dont mean to present this as a lesson in management communications. Im sure that many other executives in similar circumstances shared equally human sentiments with their colleagues. But it was significant, perhaps, that in a time of crisis, the heads of those companies in the line of fire, to quote Scardino, turned first to their HR directors for help.

This was not a case for activating well-rehearsed emergency scenarios. There was no precedence for a catastrophe on this scale. Boards needed advice, understanding and fast action from personnel professionals. They didnt turn to the bean-counters.

Im glad my company has a director for people. I dont think I had much of a view about it previously, but when war came into the workplace as it did in New York, when traders, managers and secretaries were united in their anguish, the concept of employees as human resources a term I have always disliked seemed unworthy. They were people, no more, no less.

Some of them might have been facing redundancy in New Yorks harsh, hire-and-fire environment as companies examined their head counts. But the only head count that mattered just then was the roll call of the survivors and the missing.

The job facing HR was monumental. I spoke with one HR director who was able to track his companys employees within hours. Not all of them had survived. In subsequent days I found myself discussing many workplace issues related to the disaster health and safety, building design, the willingness or otherwise of people to work in high-rise buildings, teleworking policies and employee counselling.

Underlying all these issues was the tacit acknowledgement that there were more things to life than work. It is as if this disaster has shaken the American love affair with the office and people are looking outside the workplace for some meaning in their lives. I think this trend had already begun but we may see it accelerating in future.

Human resources executives, however hardened they may be, should not ignore this mood. Indeed it might influence the continuing analysis of their own contribution. Some may see it as an opportunity to consolidate a place on the board. But there are other avenues. I see the future of the senior HR professional, not as a director but as a consiglieri, a trusted adviser who need not necessarily be part of the immediate corporate family.

The New York disaster brought out the best in many of those in corporate leadership, not least the HR people of those companies dealing with bereavements. I once quoted Peter Drucker, observing that personnel people sometimes felt undervalued. I think the case for feeling this way today is weakening. But I still think the role must change. Who wants to be a fixture at board meetings anyway?

Richard Donkin

editor of FTCareerPoint.com