Why you should address the coronavirus with employees

The global health concern is driving lots of conversations online, and employers and communications teams should have a plan to address their colleagues’ worries.

Even if companies don’t think they’re directly affected by coronavirus, the disease making national headlines is probably on their employees’ minds.

Business travelers, commuters and those who work in close quarters may have heightened concerns about their safety. By not communicating and engaging employees on sensitive matters like the coronavirus, companies could experience decreased productivity, increased costs, reputational risk and other performance challenges.

Employees are a company’s No. 1 asset, so it’s in your best interest to make sure employees know you’re taking potential threats (and their safety) seriously, even if it means delaying projects or addressing logistical challenges.

From violent protests to terrorism to outbreaks, companies should have policies that include communications strategies to address such events.

Remain calm and stay informed

Whether there’s a direct or indirect risk to your company, it’s important to follow reliable news and information sources. For example, continually check on notices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and travel advisories from the State Department. If your company is big enough, consider enrolling with a travel risk and protection advisory company, such as International SOS.

Such companies are in constant contact with health and security officials and have resources on the ground worldwide. Their sophisticated risk assessment and triage resources can assist when an employee becomes ill or winds up in the middle of a political crisis.

When communicating with employees, be exceedingly empathetic and reassure them that their safety is your top concern. Provide objective information about real danger potential, as opposed to the hype they might see on the news or online.

Consider making travel optional if employees are uncomfortable. In the age of social media, an employee ranting to friends on Facebook about a required work trip to a war or flu zone can quickly turn viral and become a major reputational issue.

Promote commonsense prevention

Use CDC or health authority guidelines to instruct employees on how to protect themselves. These precautions are usually basic things like frequent handwashing, use of hand sanitizer, and coughing into one’s sleeve; most important, keep your hands away from your face.

Increase employee access to sanitizing and antibacterial cleaning products for desk areas. These are simple but effective prevention methods that we emphasized in a campaign with Novartis and the CDC to help schoolteachers inform students and their families about virus protection.

If your employees are in countries that use a kiss or a handshake as a greeting, encourage them to put that custom on hold to prevent the spread of illness. Empower employees to work remotely or take a sick day if they are not feeling well.

Make sure that any notices or guidelines your company releases (internal or external) are informed by reliable, well-vetted sources (like the CDC) so you don’t find yourself at the center of a communications debacle.

Even in locations that aren’t yet seeing cases of coronavirus, commonsense reminders can help your employees avoid the very real danger of the common flu virus, which every year causes substantial losses to productivity and revenue and threatens employees’ health.

Rum Ekhtiar is the founder and partner of Rum & Co


One Response to “Why you should address the coronavirus with employees”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Before your talk, asking your general counsel’s office and the HR office for suggestions might help avoid grief related in any way however tenuous to your talk. Like questions of company liability if one catches something on the job, time off entitlements if any besides regular sick days like when does the company want you to take off if you have symptoms and does this come out of your sick days?
    What is the company doing to protect employees and others, and many other questions. Like months from now, did the company fail to promote in retaliation for a question asked in the post-talk Q&A?

    Was your talk comprehensive enough with enough warnings? Made on company time, not during lunch hour or after work? With employees sitting far enough apart so they don’t catch something?

    If you say to take time to wash hands frequently, what did the company know? If the answer is nothing special, a question is whether you SHOULD have known and suggested something more. Was the talk given by a doctor or nurse, not someone from PR? “My question,” a lawyer may one day announce, “is what did the company know and when did they know it?”

    Does the company want older employees or pregnant employees to take more time off? If not, SHOULD the company want this? It’s a minefield! A good idea instead of a talk might be referring employees to a few websites like American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control, a local hospital and perhaps Web MD.

    There are employees–and lawyer friends of employees–who would LOVE to sue especially if the employee has been thinking of leaving the company or if the lawyer is convinced that companies would much rather settle almost any claim for substantial money and a non-disclosure agreement rather than go through litigation.

    Caution, minefield! No one may thank you if the talk has no bad consequences but if there’s trouble, it could be your neck or a more southern part of your anatomy.

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