Airlines have suspended flights to and from China. Hong Kong has closed borders, schools, and government offices. Passengers on flights to the U.S. are quarantined for two weeks or more as “guests” of various military bases.
American citizens working in China find themselves stranded. Quarantines keep workers from their jobs. And employers are caught in the middle unless they have practices in place to protect and empower employees in impossible situations.
More reactive than strategic —
The world responds to pandemics with intensity. The sudden spread of communicable diseases like the coronavirus triggers reactive tactics to care for the affected. But It seems unable to prevent them. Explaining its aggressive role in containment, CDC Director Robert Redfield told CNN on February 4, 2020, “We don’t know a lot about this virus. This virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year, and I think eventually the virus will find a foothold and we will get community-based transmission.”
Even now, the deadly novel coronavirus is affecting tens of thousands of workers in China and threatens populations across the globe. Victims, of course, are focused on their survival. Caregivers are concerned about their own safety. And people everywhere are monitoring the spread of the disease. Employers need practices to manage their approach to such health threats.
1) Freeze international travel International business travel is rarely convenient, but pandemics present existential threats to employees who routinely travel. It’s a rare situation where business stakeholders must meet in person. So, in the context presented by spreading disease, technology offers multiple meeting alternatives.
Freezing the travel also affords employers the opportunity to assess the value of high-risk travel. It’s a chance to measure and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of international business travel.
2) Respect quarantined workers People quarantined on their return from vacation, tourism, or work abroad should be treated as if on medical leave. Their isolation has been no fault of their own, and they should be returned to the same job and duties they left.
The HR function at these employers should have some policy flexibility because the absent employee may not be positioned to communicate, complete forms, and file applications for leave. And, if such medical leave would be paid, employees deserve the compensation.
3) Work remotely Employees quarantined at a facility or at home may be equipped to work remotely. Being able to work may comfort them and continue their contribution to the business. If they have been employed as “remote workers,” employee and employer can continue if the technology permits.
While quarantined workers can continue to work remotely, they will have other things on their minds. They may be quarantined with their families or in circumstances limiting their ability to work freely. Employers should be understanding and communicate their reasonable expectations clearly, fully, and early.
4) Stay Well Employers are obliged to ensure a safe workplace. That obligation extends to protecting employees who travel. In the event of a virulent pandemic, employers must accommodate employees’ reasonable concerns about travel. They should cancel or postpone meetings, conventions, and other events in affected locations.
The employer may still order employees to travel if such travel is a bona fide part of their job description. Some employees have talents needed to treat the sick or to battle the spread of the disease. To sustain a positive relationship, managers should empathize and accommodate employee fears. For example, employees who are or may be pregnant require special consideration.
5) Send them home As a disease spreads and fatalities increase, fears intensify. People react differently, some near panic. Employers would do well to anticipate these concerns and provide a constructive and supportive culture.
Employers should require and equip universal standards for hygiene, sanitation, and prevention. They might supply masks, anti-viral hand sanitizers, and advice on healthcare in threatening situations. Where they can, they should relocate employees to reduce their contact. And, if people are reporting to work with flu-like symptoms, they should be sent home.
Traditional HR policies for managing sick employees do not address pandemic threats. They typically draw limits around absenteeism and discipline non-compliance. But events like HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, SARS, Coronavirus, and other highly communicable diseases require employers to reimagine their readiness. They must create and communicate flexible and accommodating HR, leave of absence, return to work, and workplace safety policies and practices.
Infected employees will look to their employers for understanding, protection, and respect. Other employees will monitor how management treats the ill and how it relieves their concerns. Pandemics provide HR leaders an opportunity to step up and lean into employee interests.