A new definition for 'family firm'

After tragedy, some companies reassess compacts with workers

It is a side of corporate America that the public rarely sees or even hears about: CEOs openly weeping over the loss of human life; Wall Street hotshots proclaiming bereaved families as new "partners" in company endeavors; hardened businessmen saying they have had it with the old saying that nice guys finish last.

In the nearly two weeks since the terrorist attacks on the United States, it seems, the business of America is people.

Across the country, corporations have responded on a grand scale - raising millions of dollars to support relief efforts - and on an intensely personal one, searching for ways to comfort and care for their own workers.

"I am so very deeply touched by the humanness of such very senior people that we're seeing in these stories," says Katharine Harrington, a business ethicist and former crisis-management consultant. "It is a testimony to the human spirit, and one hopes that these are lessons not forgotten."

Almost from the moment the attacks began, businesses around the country responded to the immediate human need. Companies like OppenheimerFunds, which had 598 employees in the World Trade Center towers (all of whom survived), recruited staff to man massive around-the-clock communication efforts to learn the whereabouts and condition of every employee in those offices. Within hours, counseling services were set up.

Even small companies not directly affected by the day's events found ways to act. At Lancaster Healthcare, some three hours away from New York City in Lancaster, Pa., management immediately set up free child-care services as schools closed early, posted chaplains on hospital floors, and sought out employees to learn who might have lost family or friends.

As it turned out, of some 3,700 employees, one of the hospital's surgeons had lost his brother - pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon. Another employee had a brother - who was on the 102nd floor of one of the twin towers - still unaccounted for. The company has already held a memorial service and circulated information about how employees can contribute to special funds.

Susan Zimmerman, vice-president of human resources for OppenheimerFunds, based in Denver, says employees are the ones helping to lead managers through the human dimensions of the crisis - as they did in 1993, at the time of the first World Trade Center bombing, and again in 1999, when the Columbine high school shooting tragedy struck not far from corporate headquarters.

"The role of manager changed in an instant," she says, "from being a boss and a person that leads people through change, to being a friend and a coach.... In a tragedy like this, organizational structure goes out the window. Our employees will tell us what we need to do.

"This will take a lifetime to work through," she says. "We have many years to sort through all that's happened. But our hearts are ready for that."

Experts say the tremendous human challenges now being faced in the workplace - and the resulting corporate displays of compassion - come at a particularly crucial time for American business. After massive layoffs and downsizing in the late 1980s and early 1990s launched nearly a decade in which corporate loyalty began to seem like an arcane concept, many CEOs and managers have begun to wrestle with labor shortages in recent years, even in a softening economy.

Workforce experts say management had already begun searching for ways to treat workers more compassionately as a way of recruiting and keeping top talent.

"In recent years, senior leaders have begun to understand that the very delicate bond that ties employees to their employers is a lot more delicate than they thought," says China Gorman, chief operating officer of Lee Hecht Harrison, one of the largest outplacement and career-services companies in the world.

"We are seeing some extraordinary responses [in the wake of the attacks] that I think could potentially change, for the better, the employer-employee relationship," she says. "This is happening at a time when there's already been a mindset of reawakening to how critical employees are to the success of business."

While many observers question whether recent events will lead to lasting changes in the workplace, at least one CEO argues positive change is inevitable. As the head of Kerr-McGee, a $10 billion energy and chemical company based in Oklahoma City, Luke Corbett says the 1995 bombing of the federal building in his city made a permanent change in the way he does business.

"We came away from it with a different sense of purpose and being," says Mr. Corbett, who brought in crisis-management consultants to help his employees in the wake of the bombing, which happened a block from the firm's offices. "We had to appreciate that family was important and that that was our first responsibility.

"I like to think we understand better how to relate to the family side of the equation, to the personal side of the equation, than we might have before that [1995] tragedy," says Corbett, who also offered counseling after last week's attacks.

"It is an individual, it is a family, that makes up a business," he says. "And we all want to make sure that proper appreciation is displayed for those individuals."

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