Emergency management fundamentals for workplaces

"The outbreak of the coronavirus is just one type of emergency employers must be prepared for."

It's safe to say the world wasn't prepared for the spread of the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus, SARS-CoV-2 – and the disease it causes, COVID-19 – originated in China's Wuhan province during 2019's final days. It has since spread to more than 100 countries and killed over 3,100 people as of the week of March 9, 2020. While many of these countries have 20 or fewer confirmed cases, the U.S. has the eighth-most cases of COVID-19 in the world (just over 700), and 25 Americans have died from it, per The Washington Post.

HR directors and other key company leaders must be prepared for the possibility that the coronavirus will find its way into the region or city where headquarters are based – and the probability that some employees may contract it.

But this is just one example of the sort of emergencies that all businesses can potentially face – there are also natural disasters, dedicated-denial-of-service cyberattacks that shut organizations' IT infrastructures down and even terrorist attacks or mass shootings to consider.

There's no better time than now to review any existing policies you have in place for the management of emergencies like this pandemic, adjust them as necessary and set up contingency plans for other worst-case scenarios in the future. 

How employers must manage their response to the coronavirusCOVID-19 is similar both to the common flu and the past SARS epidemic.

Know the exact nature of every threat

It's critical that you know the exact dangers your employees face in the wake of an emergency, whether it's a pandemic involving a viral disease or a natural disaster that took place in your relative or immediate vicinity. You also must be sure to distribute the most accurate and up-to-date information about the situation comprehensively throughout the workplace. With something like COVID-19, you'd want your workers to know that CDC experts believe the virus most readily spreads via contact with droplets from an infected individual's cough or sneeze, or coming within six feet of an infected person. 

By contrast, if employees were just starting to come back to work after your organization's home city experienced an earthquake a week ago, it would be wise to alert them to the dangers of inhaling dust and debris particles. Even when an earthquake and its aftershocks are over, if it occurred in an urban area, this matter could still be floating in the air for quite some time, not to mention the remnants of carbon monoxide or other dangerous chemicals. Accordingly, you'd want to recommend they use face masks specifically designed to filter that sort of particulate matter. Or in the interest of being safe rather than sorry, you could have them work from home until local authorities make it clear that local air quality is back to normal (or at least to some safe level).

Review current leave and WFH policies (and adjust accordingly)

According to Harvard Business Review, your next step should be to take a good hard look at your paid time off and sick leave policies and how they might apply in various emergencies. Do they include provisions for extended medical leave that is either fully or partially paid – up to and including paid family leave that would usually be earmarked for maternity and paternity? Can PTO days be turned into sick days if the latter run out faster than expected? What you need here, more than anything else, is flexibility.

Now, it might be that you, as head of HR, and your fellow company leaders may be happy with the time-off, leave and sick-day policies as they currently are. This may make you reluctant to shake them up, for fear of the impact to your bottom line. But what we are seeing with the coronavirus and COVID-19 is unprecedented. More to the point, who's to say the next "unprecedented" emergency doesn't happen in a matter of mere weeks or even days? Being rigid about leave policies will only demoralize staff and could ultimately affect bottom-line metrics in a far costlier way, over time, than whatever short-term expense might be involved by expanding leave temporarily.  You must include provisions in your policies that allow you to change them immediately as the needs of emergencies may demand, to accommodate the possibility of many employees being out at once.

Additionally, be more flexible with work-from-home privileges: In disease-outbreak situations, employees who handle most tasks on computers and mobile devices (as so many do these days) may be able to resume working, on a limited basis, even if they're not entirely asymptomatic yet. Not dissimilarly, operations can continue via remote work in the aftermath of disasters or other situations, in which typical in-office work just isn't an option. All of these cases depend on severity, which you have to judge case by case – but you can only do this successfully if you've adjusted your benefits and leave policies properly in the first place. 

Establish clear protocol

HR must take the lead on determining crystal-clear procedures in the wake of emergencies as well as during them. People will, after a time, naturally want to return to their typical routines. But while this is understandable, there will often have to be precautions in place before things can truly "go back to normal." 

In the case of an epidemic like what we're seeing now, it's critical to let all employees know they should observe more vigilant hygiene habits: regularly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using a high-alcohol hand sanitizer, covering coughs with a tissue (and immediately throwing them away) and keeping sick employees out of the office as much as possible.

After other emergencies, the matter may be more dealing with emotional fallout and trauma, or handling financial losses. In those cases, it may not only be beneficial to have more flexible leave but also to offer counseling and behavioral health services (whether on- or off-site) or financial assistance as the situation demands. Canceling business conferences and other events in the immediate future may also be prudent. The specific steps will differ, but no matter what, everything you do must always be in the interest of the physical and mental well-being of all members of your staff.