As employers come to grips with the disruption wrought by the Coronavirus, three closely related concerns rise to the top – employee safety, communications, and compliance. Financial viability is right there too, but smart employers prioritize people and understand that financial viability isn’t achievable in the long term if these prerequisites are not effectively met.
While we all have a fundamental understanding of these concepts, it’s highly important to revisit and assess each of them in a disciplined manner now given the context of current conditions and what is expected in the days and weeks ahead.
- Communications refers to all the ways and means by which we engage and inform employees – anticipating questions, providing answers, alleviating anxieties, and soliciting input.
- Safety in the workplace encompasses all aspects of employee safety, health, and well-being, extending to both physical and mental factors.
- Compliance often carries negative connotations, but in concept promotes adherence to standards that promote responsible business practices and collective best interests.
Getting these elements right goes a long ways towards businesses sustaining successful operations and emerging from crisis in the strongest possible position. Below, we lay out how employers can support employee safety, effectively communicate, and remain compliant with standards as they cope with COVID-19.
The safety of employees (and customers) should always be an organization’s number one concern. While most every leader would agree, how well they live up to this ideal in the actions and deeds of everyday operations often varies. If there is any remotely positive aspect of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s that safety’s paramount importance has been reinforced.
As we’ve noted, there is a close relationship between safety, communications, and compliance. Ultimately, effective employee safety is about creating a culture where every employee exemplifies safety, every day, in everything they do. Leaders set the tone and should ensure their COVID-19 communications and actions help to actively inform, educate, and support employee safety and highlight how important it is to the organization. Depending on an organization’s type and structure, key ingredients will likely include:
- Designation of a safety point person or coordinator (if not already in place)
- Preparation of hazard communications and awareness messaging
- Forming follow-up teams to ensure message response and follow-through
- Amendment or creation of new safety data sheets
- Distribution of emergency contacts and hospital and care facility information
- Digital reference points (e.g. web page or portal) for information updates
- Lock out, Tag Out procedure reinforcement or updates
- Suspended work procedure clarifications or updates
HR leadership can be especially helpful because of the employee guidance and advocacy functions of their role and connection to every employee. They can liaise with senior leaders and key safety stakeholders to align on next steps including potential policy or process change needs and how best to implement them. HR is also crucial in determining how to handle delicate situations that may arise, such as unintended violations of new safety protocols or symptomatic employees showing up at work sites.
Communicate with Intention, Not in Haste
As anxieties increase, so too does the pressure and pace at which employees seek answers to their questions and resolutions to their concerns. Before acting, employers must first diligently weigh the short-, mid-, and long-term consequences of all alternatives. If they do not, rash decisions and policy modifications made for immediate relief can have severe net negative impacts later.
An excellent example of thoughtful decision-making and assessment, followed by effective and authentic communication, came March 19th from the CEO of Marriott International. His powerful video message (watch it below) clearly spells out the situation at hand, describes how the organization is responding, and demonstrates genuine care for the company’s employees.
A message to Marriott International associates from President and CEO Arne Sorenson. pic.twitter.com/OwsF14TZgb
— Marriott International (@MarriottIntl) March 19, 2020
The desired outcome of messages like these is for employees to feel that leadership is genuinely concerned about their needs and balancing them with the broader needs of the business as best as they possibly can. It’s clear that Marriott’s CEO hit the mark, as this is echoed and summed up in a post-video comment from a Marriott employee who stated, “Thank you, Mr. Sorenson. It is hard for all of us, but seeing you come on air to talk with us left me feeling a little better and I’m sure other associates can say the same…”
Employee Communication Best Practices
In the days ahead, other leaders will be challenged to prepare and deliver similar messages to that of the Marriott CEO’s. As they do, it is helpful to reflect on employee communication best practices:
- Be planful and prepared. With a subject of such weight, “winging it” and “one and done” communications are not options. Share when, where, and how you will continue to communicate moving forward.
- Streamline the communication chain. Align leaders on the organization’s approach and their respective responsibilities in the communication activities and related actions that follow.
- Provide clear channels for feedback and inquiry. Employees need to know where and who they can go to for further information and assistance.
- Avoid information overload. Focus broad communications on the core overarching points, tailor accordingly to specific groups, and present information in a manner that will be understood.
What’s not reflected in the best practices above, however, is the sentiment that employees are truly seeking from their leaders and that should be conveyed in all of the organization’s communications. This particularly important in times of crisis, where people are understandably on edge and misguided messages can unintentionally inflame emotions. Characteristics that leaders and all employee communication touchpoints should aim to achieve include:
As Dr. Ed Powers of Northeastern University’s Corporate and Organizational Communication program notes, “a crisis provides a rare but stressful opportunity to demonstrate to stakeholders that you care about them in a very public way.” Leaders and organizations that address this opportunity and challenge effectively will minimize business disruption while helping to guide and empower employees through difficult days.
Staying Compliant While Being Responsive
Despite the disruptive impact of the Coronavirus, companies and leaders must nonetheless remain compliant with all local, state, and federal regulations that guide their businesses. Here too, HR leaders can play a critical role, liaising with legal counsel and other stakeholders that can help by monitoring and evaluating actions and decisions that could impact an organization’s compliance standing. Below are questions that many employers have raised and should have awareness of:
- What compliance or legal implication need to be considered?
Businesses must know their responsibilities under OSHA and Workers Compensation. In some circumstances, an employee who becomes infected at work could result in employer penalties or exposure to lawsuits related to workers’ compensation, invasion of privacy, discrimination, unfair labor practices, or negligence. With proper attention to employee safety and legal preparedness, employers can minimize employees’ risk of infection and their own legal risk.
- Can working remotely be mandated/required?
Yes. Whether your company implements a remote work policy depends entirely on your organization’s circumstances and where your workers reside. Be cautious about introducing new protocols if you have had not yet had time to test and develop your remote work capabilities. On the other hand, if you have established protocols in place, this could be a good opportunity to leverage them.
- Can an employee refuse to come to work because of fear of infection?
Yes, if they believe they are in imminent danger. Section 13(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) addresses “imminent danger,” including the conditions must be met before a hazard is deemed an imminent danger. Additionally, Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) extends broad-based statutory protection to those employees (in union and non-union settings alike) to engage in “protected concerted activity for mutual aid or protection.” Further, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) offers other examples that generally protect employees against discipline or discharge for engaging in such activity.
NOTE: The EEOC has opined that telework is an effective infection-control strategy. The commission also stated that employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications of pandemic disease may request telework as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection during a pandemic.
- What are the implications for PTO?
Generally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not regulate the accumulation and use of vacation and leave. The salary requirements for exempt “white collar” employees can implicate time-off allotments under various circumstances. The USDOL has provided some guidance on this topic in an opinion letter accessible on its website. What an employer may, must, or cannot do where paid leave is concerned might be affected by an employment contract, a collective bargaining agreement, or some policy or practice that is enforceable as a contract or under a state wage law. Employees requesting leave could conceivably be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to the extent they otherwise meet FMLA-eligibility requirements.
- How does the WARN ACT affect plant and site closures?
If your company is covered by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, you have an obligation to provide notice under the WARN Act if you are forced to suspend operations on account of the Coronavirus and its aftermath.
- How do we track time?
This will depend on your business. One easy way is to set up employees with mobile time sheets that can be easily completed via mobile phone or related devices. You can also implement manual tracking that requires employees to complete and return paper time. HR and payroll can help with a solution as well as your payroll provider. This can be worked into your remote work policy.
Be Steadfast and Stay the Course
As many have rightly stated, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on business and the entire world are unprecedented. It is natural for leaders to feel overwhelmed given the pressures they face to steer their businesses and the employees that serve them through this ordeal. They can, however, learn from the positive examples that others are setting and get valuable assistance and partnership from human resources leaders and other experts to support employee safety, effectively communicate, and remain compliant with standards. We’re all in this together.
For more information regarding the COVID-19 crisis, a collection of critical information can be found on our resources page, which is updated regularly.