Though they are now several years in the past, it is clear that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the thwarted attack that ended in a rural Pennsylvania field are events that will live forever in our individual, national, and global psyches. Few days have taken such an emotional toll on us, and the reverberations of September 11th will doubtless continue for many years to come. In this case, we will take a brief look at the impact of these events on emotion in the workplace.

The effect of September 11th on the emotional lives of workers can be seen in both “ordinary” and “extraordinary” ways. Clearly, those who worked in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon were affected in the most direct and profound ways. Consider, for example, employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond trading company that occupied floors 101–105 of One World Trade Center. More than 700 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald were killed in the terrorist attack, leaving more than 1,500 children to cope with the loss of a parent. The emotional toll for survivors at this company—and for the families of those killed—was tremendous. Emotions of grief, anger, and fear predominated. As the mother of a 23-year-old Cantor Fitzgerald employee said shortly after the attack, “Everybody says we’re supposedly at war, or we’re starting a war. I didn’t send my son to war. I sent him to work,” (Grieving for their son, 2001).

Emotions were less potent—but still very real—for workers far removed from the tragedy. In the weeks and months following the attacks, workers were advised that there was a “new normal.” In the new normal, Americans were supposed to remain on ‘high alert’ yet return to regular day-to-day activities. This proved difficult for many workers. As one report advised its readers, “If you have found yourself staring out of the window wondering what you are doing with your life or wishing you were at home with your family and ducking off early or even contemplating career change, then be reassured that you are not alone,” (Harnessing the wave of emotion, 2001). The “new normal” was impossible to achieve in light of the emotions that flowed freely in workplaces the world over.

Thus, the events of September 11th provided fertile ground for both ordinary and extraordinary emotion in the workplace.  These emotions were the result of direct coping with disaster and grief and with the “ripple effects” felt throughout the nation and the world. Let’s look at the emotions that might have been experienced by these hypothetical workers in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks:

•       Consider Dan, a New York City firefighter.  He “signed up” for a job of high risk and high stress, but no one anticipated the possibility of losing so many brave colleagues in one fateful morning. Dan had many close friends killed in the WTC attacks.  Months after the attack, Dan was still involved in recovery work at ground zero.  And years after the attack, Dan still suffered from depression and recurring nightmares.

•       Consider Julia, an agent who works at the gate for a major U.S. airline. The airlines, of course, were shut down for days after the attack and lost an incredible amount of business because of trepidation over air travel. Thus, although Julia still has her job, many others at her airline were laid off during this time period and have yet to be rehired. Julia also encounters emotion in the day-to-day activities of her job. Passenger emotions run the gamut from fear of flying to irritation with delays to resentment of passenger screening.

•       Consider Amal, a systems analyst working in a government office near the Pentagon.  Amal was born in the United States, raised in the suburbs, and educated in American schools. But Amal is of Arab descent and is a Muslim. Amal—like most Americans—feels great grief and anger about the terrorist attacks. But Amal must also deal with the furtive glances of coworkers, with the suspicion of others on the street, and with the possibility of very real discrimination inside and outside of the workplace. These concerns have only increased during the Iraqi war.

•       Consider Esmeralda, who works in a small, family-owned greeting card store in the Midwest. For many reasons—electronic mail, the slowing economy—Americans are sending fewer greeting cards. Thus, the store Esmeralda is working for is being shut down and Esmeralda will lose her job, her health benefits, and contact with close colleagues and friends. Although Esmeralda knows that there are many who are “worse off” than she is, this thought gives her little comfort.

•       Consider Glenn, who works in an insurance office in suburban New Jersey. Glenn’s mother died of cancer on September 13, 2001. Glenn was confronted by a complex mix of emotions at the time: grief over his mother’s death; sadness over the terrorist attack; resentment that his personal suffering is overshadowed by national sorrow; guilt for feeling that resentment. And Glenn is largely suffering in silence and without support as individuals deal with their personal places in the national tragedy.

These cases, although hypothetical, are based on very real situations and very real emotions.  And although the events of September 11th serve as both an impetus and backdrop for the consideration of Glenn, Amal, Dan, Esmeralda, and Julia, their stories illustrate the widespread prevalence of emotion in the workplace.  Understanding and coping with that emotion is the next important step.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about your own experiences in the days, weeks, months, and years following September 11, 2001. What emotions did you and your friends and family experience?  How were these emotions handled in the workplace? Do these emotions continue to affect you? Do you think they continue to affect organizational life?
  2. How do the specific individuals discussed in this case exemplify types of emotions discussed in this chapter? Do any of these cases illustrate “emotional labor” in the classic sense of the term? Do these cases illustrate the emotion that emerges from workplace relationships? Do these cases provide new ways of thinking about emotion in the workplace that have been downplayed by research and theory on workplace emotion?
  3. Is burnout a likely outcome for any of these workers? If so, how would you analyze the causes of that burnout? Are there strategies that would be effective in coping with burnout? How would these strategies differ for different individuals?
  4. Include at least 2 outside sources.