A Publication of WTVP

Work life changed profoundly in America September 11.

People were going about their daily business: having meetings, conducting transactions, making presentations, eating together, standing around the coffeemaker trying to stay abreast of company policies or news about one another’s lives.

And then, in lower Manhattan and in Arlington, hundreds of offices and tens of thousands of workers experienced the unthinkable: a massive terrorist attack and monumental destruction. And thousands lost their lives. As a human resources manager of a major energy company said, this is not a business systems loss. Data and records are intact. This is worse, she said. We’ve lost people.

Meanwhile, the rest of us witnessed the televised reports showing incredible infernos and collapsing skyscrapers. Work stopped everywhere, as workers cried and gathered in huddles to support one another.

Why? Because the people who lost their lives weren’t supposed to die—not where they were, in the workplace, just doing their job. Sure, through the years we’ve all heard of isolated incidents of workplace violence, but never the wholesale destruction of offices or people. They could have been us. In a way, we and they are alike.

At this writing, workers have gone back to work, but with the clouds of war overhead and the calls to sacrifice ringing in their ears. Not even the most heartless manager can demand the impossible right now. People just don’t care about the 300 widgets due next week in Spokane. They don’t care much about widgets at all.

They care about themselves, their families, and their friends, and are distracted by questions that cannot be easily answered, if at all. They fear for the world their children will inherit. They wonder whether what they do has any lasting significance. They feel lost.

If there’s any good that has come out of our national tragedy, it is that we all have been jarred into a reality that has always been present, but easily ignored or even scoffed at: the bottom line is people, how we treat them, and the significance of the work we give them.

Numbers may or may not add up, but the truth is, people count.

People count, because only through people who are trained well, treated well, and allowed to make a positive contribution of their spirit and intellect can we ever make the numbers. Only deeply motivated people can see the value in performance and give it all for productivity. Those who feel valued for who they are, not just what they can do, will build great and enduring companies in the days to come.

Thank God that we’ve been stunned into our senses. People aren’t "human resources" like raw material or capital or useable space. They aren’t assets as in the stupid corporate values statement, "People are our most important asset." People, how we develop them, treat them, sustain them and recognize them are ultimately all that matters.

Personal and workplace ethics have been brought into focus more clearly than ever before. Ethics, in sum, have to do with how we understand the world and how we treat people.

Workers continue to reflect on their unknown colleagues at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in airplanes and in rescue services who lost their lives just doing their work, and they’re wondering whether what they do really matters.

In the coming weeks and months, managers and business leaders have a crisis filled with danger and opportunity to help them understand how significant work really is, and how valuable employees really are. IBI