Guidance for managing employee relations during COVID-19

A lawyer shares advice for engaging employees and protecting your business during these difficult days.

Communicating with employees amid COVID-19

When crisis strikes, such as a pandemic, the most important thing employers can do is to plan for employee and customer safety and operational continuity. The second most important step is to effectively communicate with employees.

Managers must take into account the human aspect of our global crisis, including additional ideas and feedback from employees and the emotional impact circumstances are having on people.

Let’s review communications that take into account employees’ thoughts and feelings during a pandemic, as well as some messaging tips to consider.

Accept and respond to employee feedback.

Many labor and employment attorneys are anticipating the rise of whistleblower litigation spurred by employees filing discrimination and retaliation lawsuits after reporting or complaining about alleged safety and health violations.

With the rise of employee anxiety over COVID-19, companies can mitigate their risk of such litigation by creating and implementing a channel of employee communication that permits employees to report alleged health and safety violations to the company directly. This can be through an online portal, a hotline, or a separate email address dedicated to receiving such reports.

This is beneficial to the company because it potentially identifies flaws in its efforts to provide a safe and healthy work environment and provides an opportunity to remedy the potential flaw – thus, promoting employee and customer safety and health. Doing this will also help to mitigate litigation risks.

Be sure to promptly address any employee reports, conduct all investigations to determine whether a violation has occurred, and remedy any violations, if necessary.  Employees should never be disciplined for reporting a possible safety and health violation. Be sure to educate and regularly remind your human resources personnel and management about your anti-retaliation policies regarding these reports. When educating employees about this channel of communication, be sure to also educate and remind them that they will not experience any form of discipline or retaliation for using it.

Communicate regarding the emotional aspect of COVID-19.

Your employees are going to respond differently to this crisis. When communicating with your workforce, be empathetic, concise and calm. Providing a strong and compassionate sense of leadership will go a long way in helping employees to feel safe, supported and understood.

Also, show appreciation to your employees. Consistently acknowledge that your staffers are experiencing personal stress, anxiety, turmoil and additional obligations. Thank them for the role they are playing in helping the company navigate changes and continue operations. By expressing appreciation, companies can improve employee productivity and satisfaction. Remember, companies have a deep continuity stake in the efforts your employees are taking to stay healthy and productive.

Finally, if your company provides any employee assistance plans, such as counseling resources, or mental health hotlines, make these resources known and available to your employees. Recognize that different employees will have special circumstances and may need extra resources or support. Be available, flexible and understanding.

General tips for communicating with employees during the pandemic:

  • Employers and companies should stay aware of local, state, and federal laws and current events. Regularly educate yourself on pandemic news, government initiatives and guidance so that you can accurately communicate these to your employees.
  • All communications should be prompt, timely and frequent. Silence breeds anxiety. Even if you don’t have substantive updates, stay in consistent touch with employees. Doing so helps employees feel connected and ensures that no misinformation is spread through the company.
  • All communication should be centralized in a single location. If possible, create a COVID-19 resource page on the company intranet, and a COVID-19 team to receive questions and provide information. Publish bulletins, federal statute posters, and company protective measures and initiatives on the website. Also, publish this team’s contact information regularly to ensure employees can contact them if necessary.
  • Keep your messages concise, helpful and easily actionable. Simple and easily repeatable mantras can assist with reinforcing company objections, such as “Stay home, if sick,” “Wash hands and carry on,” or “Keep calm and cover your cough.”

The most important thing a company can do during the pandemic is properly plan and prepare for operations while maintaining and promoting employee and customer health and safety. Once in place, however, the crucial role of communication should not be overlooked. A failure to engage, educate and communicate with employees could come at a high cost, such as a loss of trust and confidence in leadership, employee speculation or rumors, or a loss in production.  Now is your time to consistently shine a light toward a better, brighter future.

Stephanie Chavez is an attorney at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, where she counsels businesses in labor and employment matters. She can be reached at schavez@constangy.com.

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