Even thousands of miles from the battlefield, war can be hell. Just ask any manager who's tried to lead a company through the psychological minefield of anxiety and fear that foreign conflicts inevitably produce at home.
James M. Hunt, an expert on human resource management at Babson College, knows a thing or two about the toll geopolitical conflagrations can take on local businesses. In the wake of both the first Gulf War and the September 11 attacks, Hunt, co-author of The Coaching Manager, studied how executives attempted -- and, in many cases, failed -- to maintain a calm, productive work environment. We asked him to consider the management challenges of our current war footing.
Why is dealing with employees' stress during wartime a business owner's responsibility?
This is an opportunity for managers. We noticed after 9/11 that managers who listened and tried to be helpful and paid attention to the issues, at the end of the whole process, had a stronger workgroup. They were more loyal and more productive. The managers who blew it off, who said, "Get back to work, I don't want to hear about it," had a lot of angry people walking around -- who stayed angry long after most people had gotten back on an even keel.
Should you treat your employees differently when the country is at war?
Yes. One or two steps removed from any employee, there's a likelihood that they know someone who is directly involved in the war. They have relatives who are there, or will be there soon, or are in the National Guard, or are involved in logistics. So it's very personal. Not that you want to be their therapist, but you want to get a sense of how the group is doing and what kind of support it needs. And you have to worry about the individuals who are powerfully affected by the events. By helping them get help, you tell everybody else that this is a good place to work. If bad things happen here, the boss is going to help us all get back on track.
I would encourage any business owner to think this through in advance: What would you do if somebody got very upset at work? Who would you call?
And what's the answer?
If your company subscribes to an Employee Assistance Program, then employees will have access to counselors. (You can also get referrals from www. eap-association.com.) And every local hospital has a social services department that has referral lists of people who do this kind of work.
What if employees are spending all their time huddled around the television or radio or looking for news on the Web?
I say let it happen. What we saw after 9/11 and the Gulf War is that people really needed to do this for a while. The other thing to consider is whether employees have safety-related jobs. If they're doing manufacturing or driving, make sure they are able to concentrate. It may be necessary to shut down for a period of time. After 9/11, for example, I know of a manager who looked around and said, "You people can't concentrate." He knew it wasn't their fault because he couldn't concentrate either. He shut down the line and said, "Everybody go take a break and sit and watch TV for a while." It was the right thing to do.