The outbreak of Ebola dating to March of this year has given everyone much to think about in terms of how to react to crisis and employers are no exception. HR is often called upon to help organizations respond to employee concerns, even when circumstances are out of the company’s hands. I had the chance to attend a recent panel regarding the Ebola outbreak sponsored by the Professional Services Council (PSC), a membership association of companies that provide services to the federal government. The panel brought together leaders from government and industry to share best practices and tips for coordinating the corporate response to Ebola and similar epidemics. Especially for employers with employees overseas, this advice was invaluable.
Here are the most important things your company needs to think about:
- Consider Duty of Care in Managing Employee Conditions.
As many global HR professionals are aware, the legal requirements to provide support and services for global assignees vary widely. For those working in the developing world, the host country may have little or no requirements at all and may have very weak enforcement for any employment statutes on the books. But that does not obviate the employer’s responsibility to assist in a time of crisis; primarily, this would fall under the common law doctrine called duty of care. An employer has a duty to care for the well-being of its workforce and can be found liable for inaction or negligence. Especially when facing down the costs of voluntary evacuations, HR should advocate that executives be mindful of the duty of care the company bares towards its employees. Furthermore, the cost of a voluntary evacuation may be less expensive in the end than providing care for an employee who does become ill.
- Be Inclusive.
Patricia Rader, a Deputy Administrator at USAID, strongly urged attendees at PSC’s panel to think inclusively when planning their corporate response. While a company may choose or may be required to evacuate expat personnel, they shouldn’t neglect their responsibility to local nationals or third country nationals. Marshall resources for all employees and make sure that there is a contingency plan and outreach to everyone. Jan Auman, President of the International Development Services Division at Tetra Tech, talked about the example his company tries to set in providing services to its workforce of local employee. He highly recommended an organization called The Headington Institute, which specializes in support and counseling for aid workers.
- Think about Logistics to Manage Risk.
Mr. Auman made several good recommendations about how to manage employee concerns during a health crisis. Even in areas not experiencing outbreak conditions, his company encourages virtual meetings so that employees don’t congregate and create opportunity for infection to spread. He also spoke about the option to offer voluntary or proactive evaluation employee families. While this can be costly, it will actually be more cost effective if the company removes employees and dependents before the moment of actual crisis when travel arrangements become extraordinarily costly, if they’re available at all. Lastly, Auman recommended being proactive in communicating with clients and business partners to ensure everyone that despite conditions, the company has a plan to continue delivering services as promised.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.
All panelists at the event emphasized how critical corporate communication is when responding to crisis. Ensuring that employees have up to date information about company policy, plans, and resources is so important in managing the fear and anxiety provoked by a health crisis. A recent study of the global mobility field conducted by the Sante Fe Group showed that most companies communicate with global assignees primarily via email. In the event of a true epidemic, every channel of communication needs to be leveraged: social media, emergency contacts, company intranets, etc. Depending on the nature of the risk, some companies may even set up temporary offices or control centers in a neutral third country. This practice is a great employee relations tool and also helps with business continuity. Furthermore, it gives employees a place to go if they need medical treatment for other conditions and are concerned about seeking treatment in their host country due to the risk of contamination.
Communication is clearly a priority for those employees most at risk, but even those who are not under immediate threat should understand the company policy and approach. For example, though the US has seen only 4 cases to date and had only death due to Ebola, many employers have used the opportunity to remind employees of everything from their telework policy to flu shot programs. The goal of communication around health issues should be informative and supportive; let your employees know what the company is doing to respond and what resources are available to them.
I was glad to hear from the US Government Representatives about the aggressive steps being taken to help address the Ebola outbreak. Of course, stopping the spread of the disease is their goal and the toll this has taken on corporate infrastructure and business interests is minor when compared to the loss of human life. Nevertheless, the lessons learned by companies dealing with this crisis can and should be applied to future situations where employee health and safety is at risk.