'Hey HR, What's Our H1N1 Policy?'

By Beth Mirza Sep 28, 2009

A recent survey found that a majority of American workers say their employers haven’t said anything to them about plans for dealing with H1N1 flu, also called swine flu, at their workplaces. Employers are m​issing out on an opportunity​ to build trust with their workers and communities, say communication experts.

Sixty-nine percent of 1,028 workers responding to a national poll conducted for Mansfield Communications Inc. Sept. 10-12, 2009, said they had received no communication about workplace policies pertaining to H1N1. Fifty percent of the respondents ranked their concern about the H1N1 virus at six or higher on a scale of one to 10. Another finding revealed that employees might not make the right choice to stay home if they get sick: 84 percent of respondents said they believe the recession creates more pressure to show up for work—even if they are feeling sick.

“Employers need to clearly communicate with employees about such things as extended sick leave policy and procedure to minimize the spread of infection,” said Rob Ireland, partner at Mansfield Communications Inc.“During a pandemic, employers must become trusted sources of information and help employees make the right choices.”

Got Policy?

“If [employers] are talking, it’s not getting through,” Ireland said. “That’s a bit staggering, given that the U.S. government and President Obama have asked companies to be more transparent and provide extended sick leave. And yet companies have a head-in-the-sand approach.”

One reason for the lack of communication might be a lack of anything to discuss. Carolyn DeWitt, national sales manager for Dialogic Communications Corp., which provides emergency notification services, said that her meetings with clients and organizations across the country have revealed that companies lack baseline pandemic plans. (Click here for SHRM’s checklist to prepare for and deal with H1N1 in the workplace.) She urges them to address several key points.

Will we:

  • Impose travel restrictions?
  • Impose meeting restrictions?
  • Install hand sanitizers?
  • Sponsor flu shots?
  • Send ill employees home?
  • Prevent ill employees from coming to work?
  • Add paid sick leave days to encourage sick workers to stay home?

Dewitt urges employers to set up a method to track how many employees call in sick each day so that HR and other senior leaders can spot rising absenteeism rates.

“On any given day, most organizations won’t know how many people called in sick,” DeWitt said. “In this case, it’s a good idea to have a rollup reporting system. In our organization this year, any manager whose employee calls in sick—whether it’s the flu or not—immediately reports that to HR. You need to know that percentage, to see if that is trending north.”

Tell Them About It

Once the pandemic policy is created, it’s time to tell employees about it. Employers should look to their company’s culture and values to shape how they communicate the policy, Ireland said.

“Culture always wins. If communications seem out of line with the culture and use a different tone or language, people won’t get it,” he said.

“It’s not enough to tack this information to the wall,” said Jay Jamrog, senior vice president of research at i4cp, a network of corporations focused on improving workforce productivity, in a webcast.

One way to get employees’ attention, DeWitt said, is through a service her organization provides: a network notifying capability. A message pops up on employees’ computer monitors and requires employees to confirm that they have read or listened to the message before the screen is released and employees can start work.

If an organization has to deliver messages during an emergency—such as closing facilities or redirecting people to a different work location—keep messages short and clear, DeWitt said. “Short, clear directive messages are best received, and make them frequent,” she said. “This will minimize rumors, speculation and distraction. Otherwise, they will seek out information from peers or call managers and tie up key personnel.”

That’s why HR should especially focus on training front-line managers on the ins and outs of the policy, Ireland said. “They get the questions, rumors and phobias. They are the ones dealing with all the issues and are the least equipped. Usually the company hasn’t given them information, told them where to turn to answer questions or how to escalate problems up the line.”

The front-line managers’ ability to communicate effectively is the success/fail point of crisis management, Ireland said. Train and retrain managers, and give them the tools and resources to make decisions when circumstances in their department or region change. In a large organization, with multiple locations, the flu might impact one region severely while barely affecting another. The managers in those locations need to be able to follow different action paths to keep their offices functioning and their employees healthy.

However, also have a way to rein in people’s decisions, Ireland said. As internal communications leader at HP during the SARS outbreak, he said, he saw people making inappropriate decisions and restrictions, to the detriment of the company and employees.

“We’re not physicians,” Ireland said. “Don’t invent your own response. If health authorities ask you to do something, then do it. Don’t overreact and go overboard and scare employees. If people have other ideas, check with the appropriate health care authority and act accordingly.”

If companies decide to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies, they’ll be flexible with sick leave and encourage sick employees to stay home until they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications. However, the prevailing norm in many workplaces is for employees to report to work regardless of how bad they feel. Organizations are doing their employees and their business a disservice by allowing this practice, Ireland said.

“If people are feeling pressure to come to work sick, organizations need to reassure people that their jobs are not at risk,” he said. “Don’t take a myopic view of this. If an employee misses three days of work but didn’t infect 10 other people … it’s worth the investment in extended sick leave and laptops to make sure [the virus] doesn’t spread like wildfire through the office.”

Making people believe that it really is OK to call in sick “is hard to do in some cultures,” said Lorrie Lykins, managing editor at i4cp, in a webcast. “Even if you communicate this message, there’s always an underlying undercurrent that it really isn’t OK. Employees need to believe you and know there won’t be a penalty.” Make sure that senior management models the behavior that all employees are expected to follow.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect