Five years ago. Damn.
Five years ago today I was in a meeting with the President of my company when a police car flew by our office. Then a second, a third, and a fourth. And just as the two of us looked at each other with questioning looks on our faces, an employee flew through the door and told us that someone was on a shooting rampage at Tech. In a building a mile from where we were standing.
We had just enough time to stand when another employee came through the door as white as a ghost. “Peter’s (an employee) wife was shot.”
Sh*t. On so many levels.
Based on the report from Peter’s wife, we knew it was really.freaking.bad and my mind scrambled to make order of it. Peter needed a ride to the hospital. Seven of our employees were unaccounted for. All of them students at Tech. All took classes in the building where the shooting happened.
I wanted to throw up.
But as HR, isn’t it our job to pull together the chaos and help people make sense of it?
We scrambled to find the missing employees. But the phone lines weren’t working. And with every minute that went by, the number of people reported as having been killed kept rising. Seven, twelve, eighteen, twenty three, thirty two… Sh*t. In a rare moment alone, I remember sitting at my desk with my head in my hands trying to wrap my mind around what was going on.
By the end of the day we knew Peter’s wife was out of danger and we had tracked down all of our employees – physically unharmed. But emotionally, our employees and our community were a mess.
As a company, what do you do? Where do you even start to pick up the pieces when a tragedy of this magnitude strikes? How do you find the balance of running a business and allowing your employees time to heal when every.single.employee has healing to do?
I quickly realized that to our employees, work no longer mattered. I’m not sure how long it was before people started being able to focus on work again, but it was a while. The weeks following the tragedy were filled with vigils, walks, remembrance events, and employees sitting around trying to make sense of it all. As a company, we had no choice but to be okay with that.
I also found out that everyone has different immediate needs. Some employees wanted to come back to the office in the days following the shooting; to lean on their friends, to grieve with others who understood, to make sure their peers were okay. Others wanted to get out of town; away from the media and the devastation. We encouraged employees to do whatever they wanted and to take whatever time they needed.
Everyone handles recovery differently. As the months and even years go by, some people still aren’t okay, and it’s important for HR to know who those people are so we can advocate for them. In the five years since the shooting, I’ve personally hired several people who were there that day and I can tell you, they aren’t okay. I’ve witnessed employees brought to tears years later over triggers that remind them of that day. I know for a fact that there are Hokies who have moved to different companies in different cities who struggle to this day. And the people sitting in desks next to them might have no idea, but sometimes they need someone to know why April 16th is a particularly hard day for them. HR should be that someone.
I’m not sure anyone is prepared to handle the aftermath of a tragedy like the shootings that happened on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007, but when something of this magnitude happens it’s amazing how many people look to HR to help create some sense of clarity through the chaos.
Marisa is a Culture Coach for small and quickly growing organizations trying to establish the infrastructure required to create a company full of passionate, motivated, and engaged employees. She has held culture and engagement roles for two nationally recognized great places to work, founded the research and networking group Culture Fanatics, and is an industry recognized blogger. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and twin boys and is looking forward to the day she can bike across the country to raise money for MS research. @marisakeegan.