merican Express was affected in its every aspect by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Eleven employees -- corporate agents working in the World Trade Center -- were killed.

Its downtown operation on Vesey Street was severely damaged and was closed for eight months. The company was hit hard by the subsequent downturn in travel.

What most businesses call a contingency plan, Amex calls a "business continuation plan" -- and it went into effect on 9/11. Account for employees. Make sure they're in a safe place and that they've been in touch with their families. Make sure customer needs are being met. Stabilize the business. And then stimulate the business.

At that time, Cynthia Valles had been at her job as senior vice president and general manager of the U.S. consumer travel network for only four months. She runs the rep affiliate network, the Travel Impressions tour operation and Golden Bear Travel. During the days following the fall of the Twin Towers, she walked through the streets of lower Manhattan, making her way to Amex's offices in the city, seeing how she could help.

And as if the immediate aftermath of 9/11 wasn't stressful enough for the company and employees, layoffs followed. Overseeing layoffs affected Valles and other managers deeply, and the business continuation plan was modified. She worked on an amendment for her division, a new employment policy that had the flexibility to withstand crises without resorting to layoffs.

And in 2003, with its Norwalk virus and its SARS and its recession and its war in Iraq, the new plan was tested. Her division made it through without a single employee being laid off.

"Through a combination of outsourcing, voluntary leave time and leaves of absence, we can increase or decrease our workforce by 15% without having to let anyone go," Valles said.

"We increase or decrease hours at call centers. We offer employees shortened workweeks or shortened days. The voluntary time off or voluntary leaves of absence are without pay, but employment and benefits continue."

In extreme cases, such as when there aren't enough volunteers, the company will institute involuntary furloughs at a reduced level of pay. And, as with the voluntary leave time, employment status and benefits continue. If an employee goes on voluntary or involuntary leave, he or she agrees to return to work if called.

"We can turn this fairly rapidly -- we can flex up or down within seven to 14 days," Valles said. "It's been tested -- we went through some very tough times earlier this year, and we were able to reduce costs as the business dictated. Then, when we rebounded, we ramped back up, turned up the volume."

She plans on holding meetings with American Express-affiliated travel agencies at their annual meeting later this fall, and, as part of their Six Sygma training, they'll be sharing details of business continuation plans.

Almost every business in the travel industry went through painful layoffs -- sometimes several rounds of painful layoffs. And each one chipped away at the morale of the survivors. Perhaps an immediate benefit of a flexible workforce plan is that employees notice that their employer bothered to take the time to create one. And that act alone can be a major step in healing morale.

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