Terrorism and Work

On September 11, 2001, in the largest terrorist attack in history, four passenger planes were commandeered by terrorists and flown into the office buildings of the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing an estimated 3,000 people and injuring another 250. This tragic event was an extreme example of the many acts of terrorism that have been targeted at workplaces. Workplaces may be particularly attractive targets of terrorism for several reasons. A large number of people congregate in workplaces and are present at predictable times during the day, providing a social address where a targeted individual or group can be accessed. Attacks on workplaces are also likely to gain significant public attention. In addition, workplaces may be perfect targets from an ideological perspective, as certain workplaces may be selected because they represent an ideology to which the terrorists are opposed.

Given that there is a great deal of variation in the targets of terrorism, the nature of terrorist organizations, and the strategies used by terrorists, terrorism has been defined in a number of different ways. However, common to the majority of these definitions are the notions that terrorism involves intentional violence or aggression, is motivated by a political agenda, focuses attention on the cause or ideology underlying the attack, and is conducted for the purpose of creating fear among a populace, wherein this fear is leveraged to achieve a particular goal. Terrorism can be distinguished from other forms of organizational violence by the fact that one of the main motivations of acts of terrorism is the creation of fear.

Postterrorism Research Findings: The Individual and the Organization

Research suggests that organizations may be greatly affected by terrorism both as an immediate result of the attack itself and in the aftermath of an attack. As a direct and immediate result of a terrorist attack, an organization may suffer the loss of employees, employees may sustain injuries, and physical structures and resources may be damaged or destroyed. Employee and organizational suffering may continue in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Employees may suffer clinical or subclinical psychological trauma. A number of studies have suggested that people who are victimized by terrorist attacks may develop clinically significant symptoms severe enough for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder or clinical depression. The likelihood of developing clinical symptoms has been found to be heightened with increasing proximity to the location where a terrorist attack took place and with increasing extremity of the attack. Although clinical psychological diagnoses are common following a terrorist attack, sub-clinical symptoms are even more widespread. In the aftermath of terrorism, one frequent response is a heightened feeling of personal vulnerability and lack of safety. For instance, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, studies found that people continued to fear future attacks as long as six months after the attacks. An increase in somatic ailments such as headaches and sleep disruptions can also be associated with the strain of having experienced a terrorist attack. Although most of the research to date on the aftermath of terrorism has focused on the general populace, rather than employees of targeted organizations, it is reasonable to assume that the effects on the populace are fewer than the effects on members of a targeted organization.

One organizational outcome of the grief, bodily injury, and psychological and physical symptoms resulting from the stress and fear of terrorism is an increase in employee absenteeism. There may be a number of reasons why employees want to stay away from their workplace. Employees may be afraid to return to work, concerned about the possibility of another attack. Employees may also be grieving the loss or harm of coworkers and may need time to recover from their grief before facing the workplace. Employees may also be physically incapable of returning to work as a result of sustaining injuries during an attack, or because they are coping with the strain from the attack. Although absenteeism has negative implications for organizations in terms of lost productivity and the disruption of routine, following a terrorist attack, absenteeism might have some positive benefits, as a period of employee absenteeism may ultimately prevent turnover resulting from the accumulation of stress that can lead to chronic depression or disability.

Another organizational outcome of terrorism is that the work environment is likely to be disorganized, and role ambiguity may result. If coworkers have been killed or injured, if the resources required to perform one’s job have been destroyed, or if the workplace itself has been destroyed, employees’ routines may be completely disrupted. Under these circumstances, individuals may be unsure how to go about performing their normal job-related tasks. Lacking job clarity can impair people from accomplishing their job-related goals, and individuals’ job performance may suffer.

As a result of a terrorist attack, organizations may incur a number of financial costs, as physical structures and resources may need to be rebuilt or replaced. Organizations may also lose employees through death, injury, or turnover, making it necessary for them to hire, socialize, and train new employees. Organizations may also need to assist workers with medical or psychological treatments. This may involve the use of in-house employee assistance programs or may involve making payments for these services to external treatment centers. These financial costs to the organization may lead to other organizational problems, to the extent that the attention of the organization is diverted from other workplace issues. Finally, as a result of absenteeism and the loss of people, resources, and the ability of employees to focus on their job tasks, an organization’s productivity may suffer greatly, which can contribute to the extensive financial costs that may be incurred from a terrorist attack.

One unique outcome of terrorist attacks is that an individual does not have to work for the targeted organization to experience psychological distress or a disruption of work following an attack. For instance, some people may work in organizations that are similar to the one targeted for attack. People in these organizations may feel an increased level of vulnerability and fear. Other people work in occupations that force them to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Such is the case for occupations such as investigators, emergency service personnel, and body handlers. Following the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, there was an increase in alcohol consumption and physical ailments among people whose job was to handle the bodies of the victims.

Implications for Organizational Practice and Policy

The organization plays a critical role in facilitating recovery of a devastated workforce and the future of the organization. A variety of organizational responses may be required, and the best strategies for implementing these responses may be to have the necessary infrastructure in place prior to a terrorist attack and to have an existing plan for a response to such an event. Developing an emergency response plan may also help employees to retain or regain a sense of personal control before, during, and following a terrorist attack. Training people how to maximize their safety and how to help others in need may help increase chances of escape from potentially dangerous situations. These formal responses to emergency situations can give employees reason to feel that their organization is supportive of their needs, and this perceived support may in turn encourage employee loyalty to the organization.

Formal organizational responses to terrorism might include the use of employee assistance programs (EAPs). Following a terrorist attack, EAPs may provide employees with easily accessible counseling and support, help diagnose serious distress or psychopathology among employees, and provide treatment or referrals for employees suffering trauma. In conjunction with EAPs, organizations can help to identify people who may be at higher risk for subsequent strain following a terrorist attack, such as people who sustained injury or who were close with people who suffered or died. Outreach services may also be a vital conduit for accessing at-risk populations. Although the efficacy of EAPs following a terrorist attack has yet to be established definitely, the utility of these programs has been confirmed in studies examining other stressors.

Should an act of terrorism occur, workplaces are responsible for providing on-site intervention. Immediate and short-term responses often include Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) that can be administered through their EAPs. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is a structured group meeting facilitated by a trained team and involving only the personnel directly affected by the critical incident. The purpose of the debriefing is to mitigate acute stress resulting from trauma and accelerate the normal recovery of ordinary people who are suffering through typical but painful reactions to an abnormal event. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is typically con-ducted 24 hours after the event by a trained mental health professional. It is an early response intervention and not intended to act as a stand-alone intervention. It is important to note that recent meta-analytic results indicate that caution should be exercised in using CISD as a routine response to organizational crisis and disasters.

Ongoing, supportive organizational practices can have a great impact on employees during periods of stress. Empathic leaders can buffer the strain resulting from devastating organizational events. In fact, it is during times of crisis that leaders can exert their greatest influence. Leaders can provide compassion and social support, reduce role ambiguity, and communicate a vision for the future of the organization. Organizations and their representatives can also provide a variety of instrumentally supportive functions, such as providing psychological or economic counseling or holding blood drives. Organizations can also offer informational support, keeping employees up-to-date on new developments as events unfold. Communication networks within the organization and between the organization and community can facilitate timely information exchange.

Overall, although workplaces are often targets of terrorism, they also have an important role to play in the protection of employees and the recovery efforts. Some of the most important roles organizations can play are in the provision of social, instrumental, and informational support.


  1. Byron, K., & Peterson, S. (2002). The impact of a large-scale traumatic event on individual and organizational outcomes: Exploring employee and company reactions to September 11, 2001. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 895-910.
  2. Ryan, A. M., West, B. J., & Carr, J. Z. (2003). Effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 on employee attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 647-659.
  3. Van Fleet, E. W., & Van Fleet, D. D. (1998). Terrorism and the workplace: Concepts and recommendations. In R. W. Griffin & A. O’Leary-Kelly (Eds.), Dysfunctional behavior in organizations: Violent and deviant behavior (Vol. 23, Part A, pp. 165-201). Greenwich, CT: Elsevier Science/JAI Press.

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