Recently, I was in a group conversation when one of the participants commented she had been on the first floor of the World Trade Center when the plane hit; she acknowledged she was a witness to the horror of 911.

I think collectively, the group all experienced a reaction of horror and curiosity about what this woman had been through.

In a matter of seconds, several people started asking her questions such as:

  • What was it like?
  • What did you see?
  • Did you see any dead bodies?
  • Did you see anyone jumping from windows?

In those first few seconds, I had a number of questions myself. However, instead of asking questions, I recognized the look on her face.

The questions were forcing her to relive her horror – the memories of living through 911.

She look on her face, which was a combination of horror and disbelief, stopped me in my tracks. But the other members of the group didn’t seem to notice. Instead, they pressed on with question after question, asking what happened.

I am the first to recognize it is human nature to be curious about what happened at 911. I also recognize there was no malice behind the questions. The media has replayed footage of the event on an annual basis which has led to a certain level of desensitization around how dramatic the experience must have been for the victims and their families and even the entire city.

Research shows asking victims about their experience, while harmless on the surface, can actually cause the victim to relive the experience, including the trauma.

Asking traumatized people curious questions about their experience can inadvertently lead to creating a hostile work environment. Additionally, when employers have claimed they were unaware of the harassments (i.e. comments,) more than one Courts has found in favor of the employee stating that is not an acceptable defense and the employer “should have known”.

Immediately download your FREE first chapter of Invisible Causalities, Overcoming Adversity After a Tragedy in the Workplace

As an employer, one way to support your returning employee and also protect the organization would be to hold training classes in which one section of the class covers the issue of asking questions. 

One final note, should your employee return to work and continue to relive the experience through the retelling of their story, you may want to consider having a conversation with the employee. In this conversation, consider asking them to refrain from discussing the situation as it can be disruptive to the work force. Another approach would be to refer them to the EAP for assistance.

Should the situation not improve, the next step would depend on which approach the organization deems appropriate to take. 


About Alicia

20 years ago I had no idea other people didn’t recognize and interpret body language the way I did. It was just something I picked up on naturally.
I am a national conference speaker, facilitator, and coach, specializing in non-verbal communication. I received my Master of Science in Human Resources from the University of Houston.
My passion is helping others become influential so that they can reach their career and business goals.

0 thoughts on “How Well-Meaning Questions Can Unintentionally Increase Your Organization’s Legal Exposure After a Tragedy

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *