Pandemic Alert Raises Communication Expectations

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR May 5, 2009

On April 29, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to the second-highest level, signaling that a pandemic was imminent and that “the time to finalize the organization, communication and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”

Some organizations, such as Claremont Savings Bank in Claremont, N.H., had already begun to communicate with employees before the WHO alert was issued, when there was “plenty of lunchroom chatter, but no panic,” according to Beverly A. Widger, SPHR, the bank’s senior vice president of human resources.

Widger, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel, said the bank ordered more hand sanitizers, counter wipes, phone wipes, masks and gloves, and it reiterated leave policies. This is a logical precaution for a business that involves extensive face-to-face contact with customers.

Communicate Early, Often

The nature and frequency of communications to employees before, during and after an event that can impact business operations will depend on the nature of the organization and the type of disruption that is likely. For example, a chain of movie theaters will have very different concerns in the event of a flu pandemic than a graphic design firm. In the latter case, telecommuting might enable the firm to continue to operate during a pandemic with little or no disruption, whereas the movie theater might have no alternative but to close temporarily to minimize opportunities for human-to-human transmission.

Varolii is an automated communications technology firm that helps major companies, including top airlines, utilities and health care organizations, keep employees informed. The firm suggests that employers:

Update employee contact information now. Ask employees to provide a complete list of cell and home phone numbers, personal e-mail addresses, and emergency contacts. Attempts to reach employees will fail if contact information is missing or wrong.

Communicate early. Head off rumors, panic and miscommunication by letting employees know there is a plan in place, whether there are options for telecommuting and what they can expect in the event of a business disruption. Provide guidance on how employees can protect themselves from illness, and remind them to stay home if they or family members are feeling ill.

Ensure that two-way communication is effective. Some experts estimate that up to 40 percent of the workforce might be unable to work during a pandemic, so it’s important for employees to have multiple ways to keep the company informed on their status.

Strike the right balance, and use the best medium. Limit communications to crucial updates and key information. Send time-sensitive messages by phone. During an emergency, the simple sound of a known voice speaking calmly can reduce uncertainty and stress. Use e-mail to send follow-up and non-critical status messages.

Don’t forget customers. Assure customers of the company’s status, and let them know what services and products will and will not be available in the event of an emergency.

Plan. Now is the time to start planning for emergency events so employees and customers will have the information they need when they need it.

In an April 29, 2009, interview with SHRM Online, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin Foulke Jr. said the ultimate goal should be to protect employees and stay in operation.

Employers need to send a consistent message to employees, giving careful thought to how they communicate. Let employees know you will stay on top of this health threat and keep them informed, suggested Foulke, who is now an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta. He recommended that employers have one point of contact for doing so.

What to Communicate

The web site, established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recommends that employers inform employees about the:

  • Fundamentals of pandemic influenza (e.g., symptoms of influenza, modes of transmission).
  • Personal and family response strategies (e.g., hand hygiene, coughing/sneezing etiquette, contingency plans).
  • Community and workplace mitigation strategies (e.g., social distancing, provision of infection control supplies).
  • Resources available (e.g., employee assistance programs, vendor-provided benefit counseling, etc.).
  • Organization’s pandemic preparedness and response plan.

According to the consultancy Hewitt Associates, most pandemic plans contain information regarding educating employees about preventing the spread of infectious diseases, providing advice on personal emergency preparedness, cross-training for essential positions and communicating potential business impacts to stakeholders. “Developing such a plan takes time and is a process that is obviously better completed in a non-emergency situation,” said Rochelle Morandini, national organizational health practice leader with Hewitt, in a statement.

But the lack of such a plan should not inhibit employee communications.

“Proactive communication will help gain employee trust and prevent employee fear, anxiety, rumors and misinformation,” the HHS site notes, adding that employers should “ensure that your communications are culturally and linguistically appropriate.”

Hotlines, dedicated web sites, brochures, posters and telephone trees are just a few ways to communicate pandemic status and actions to employees in a consistent and timely fashion, the site adds.

But be careful not to overdo it.

One SHRM member participating in a discussion about communication strategies on the HR Talk bulletin board said: “We sent out an e-mail on Monday to say that we are monitoring the situation and gave employees some basic preventative steps to take in any seasonal flu situation. As more information becomes available, we’ll keep them posted. We wanted it to be very low-key.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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