How employers should respond to the coronavirus outbreak

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Up-front, frank exchanges with workers who travel on business and those back from holiday are among the measures that HR staff need to take in response to coronavirus, writes Kate Ledwidge, who also warns against discrimination of ethnic Chinese workers.

Employers and employees alike are understandably nervous after reading daily headlines tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the rising death count. Now that we have confirmed cases in the UK, this will only heighten.

Every cough heard in the office, or on the commute in, will heighten concerns among employees, however unlikely it is that the Wuhan coronavirus is the cause. Employers need to give thought to the practical impact this could have on their workplace and plan accordingly.

At this relatively early stage, it is likely to be fear-driven behaviour that is the biggest problem, rather than the illness itself.

For example, it would be no surprise to find an increase in requests to work from home, more employees taking “precautionary” sick days, and staff asking business leaders difficult questions about how they propose to manage the risks.

Employers need to ensure they minimise potential disruption to business continuity, but also make sure they are seen to protect staff from a health and safety perspective.

Large employers, particularly those providing business-critical services, learned lessons during previous pandemics such as the SARS and the avian flu outbreaks in the 2000s. Those who proactively developed a pragmatic, business-wide approach, and provided communications about this, tended to fare significantly better in minimising any negative impact.

It helps to allay fears and, importantly from an HR perspective, sets the right boundaries for staff members. However, it ought to be borne in mind that the death toll from 2019-nCoV coronavirus has already surpassed that from SARS in mainland China.

There should be a zero tolerance policy on any negative or hostile comments, and managers should tackle this directly, early on, if they spot it

Ideally, HR leaders should communicate a clear message to the workforce, dealing with the following points:

  1. Reassure the workforce that your organisation is mindful of the situation
  2. Explain any precautions being taken (for example, managers being briefed about the signs and symptoms, a policy to halt non-essential work travel to affected Chinese regions in this high-risk period, etc)
  3. Require that anyone planning to travel to any area with higher concentrations of the virus, outside of work, informs you in advance and agrees a plan for managing this. Obviously, direct to China has now become very difficult but travellers to neighbouring countries also need to be cautious: there has been a fatality from the virus in Hong Kong, and about 90 cases in Japan and many in Thailand and South Korea, for example. One of the first cases of the virus in the UK had recently returned from Singapore. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control keeps an up-to-date record of countries affected.
  4. Point staff towards clear and unbiased official guidance – for example, from Public Health England
  5. Remind staff that it is important to take a common sense approach. It is crucial that employees tell you immediately if they have recently returned from an affected region, or have come into contact with someone who has done so (or otherwise who is suspected of suffering from the virus) and to take strict precautions. Otherwise, the workplace should continue to function as normal, and business policies on working from home and sickness absence must be followed.
  6. Name a key point of contact to field any queries (usually the HR manager).

Behind the scenes, it is sensible to take practical steps such as ensuring there is a good remote working system in place, just in case, giving managers extra training and guidance, and centrally monitoring absence levels to pick up on unusual patterns.

Beware of ethnic discrimination

Another problematic consequence of the fear generated by the outbreak is prejudice towards those with Chinese heritage or family members. It has been reported that signs with “No Chinese” and “Chinese tourists out” have appeared in various place in the US, and that a Chinese woman was chased out of a restaurant in Japan.

HR leaders need to be mindful of the potential for discrimination at work in this context, even if this is because of a genuine misunderstanding of the outbreak or a misjudged “joke”. There should be a zero tolerance policy on any negative or hostile comments, and managers should tackle this directly, early on, if they spot it. Otherwise, employers could be opening themselves up to costly discrimination claims.

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Kate Ledwidge

About Kate Ledwidge

Kate Ledwidge is senior associate in the employment team at JMW where she specialises in providing strategic employment law advice to organisations
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