Corporate Response to 9/11 Stresses Need to Enlist Business in Fight for Social Justice (Archive)
The notion of a socially responsible company expands naturally and easily during such times as were triggered by the September 11 attacks. It suddenly became a simple matter for businesses to see beyond the bottom line, to recognize the connection they have with the society at large. As a result, we have seen an outpouring of giving that is probably unprecedented in American history.
In many cases, the impetus to do something – to help the victims of families – was so strong that individuals came forward with actions on their own, not prompted by any corporate directive. The best example is probably the drive at Southwest Airlines for employees to donate part of their pay to the New York relief effort. This was a campaign that originated in the employee ranks – and in the end every single Southwest employee participated.
Corporations came through with some blockbuster contributions: $10 million from Pfizer, $10 million from Goldman Sachs, $6 million from Cisco. Especially notable was the response from the oil giant BP. Two days after the attacks, BP donated $5 million to relief groups and then matched all employee contributions on a 3-for-1 basis. In addition, the company’s foundation reached out to its dealers and jobbers, matching their contributions on a 3-for-1 basis.
But it’s not just about money. The shock that followed the attacks stimulated companies all across the country to bond with their employees in ways they had never done previously. There was a heavy demand for the counseling services provided by Employee Assistance Programs. At its New York headquarters, Pfizer brought in a psychologist to guide employees on how to discuss this tragedy with their children.
Companies were even enlisted in the drive to prevent mindless hate crimes against Muslims. General Motors sent a message to its 380,000 U.S. employees reminding them of the importance of “valuing differences.” At the San Francisco law firm McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen, a pro bono committee was formed to defend Muslims who become victims of hate crimes.
Offices and stores across the country were closed immediately after the planes hit, for the express purpose of allowing employees to go home to their families. Seattle-based Starbucks closed all their stores in North America – and company stores in New York, Washington and Pittsburgh were soon working around the clock to supply coffee and snacks to relief workers. Many companies had people traveling on business that day and they went to great lengths to get them home as quickly as possible. I have listened to and read numerous testimonials from employees on how proud they were to work for a company that looked out for its people and the communities they serve.
This was a time for CEOs to step up to the plate and many did. Perhaps the most outstanding example was Kenneth I. Chenault, who is serving his first year as CEO of American Express. The company lost 12 employees in the World Trade Center. Chenault was in Salt Lake City on September 11 but he quickly organized a relief effort inside the company. Operators at the Amex call center in Greensboro, North Carolina, got on the phones with orders to contact every one of the 6,000 employees who worked in downtown Manhattan. More than a dozen were found to have been displaced from their apartments, and Amex found temporary housing for them. On September 21, American Express held a Town Hall meeting for 5,000 employees at Madison Square Garden. Chenault sat on the stage alone, open-shirted, answering questions from all corners. At least twice he came down from the stage to hug employees who were overtaken by emotion. At the end of the session, Chenault told his employees how proud he was to represent a company like American Express. In his parting words, he told the employees: “And in fact, you are my strength. I love you.”
That’s not a speech you learn at CEO school.