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Crisis leadership: 5 tips to lead effectively in times of ambiguity

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This article was first published on Best Practice Institute, can be found here. It has been adapted and re-published with permission of the author Louis Carter, social/organisational psychologist, executive coach and author of more than 11 books on leadership and management.

The present environment, disrupted by COVID-19, is unique in its ability to test business leaders. Are you willing to take up this opportunity to step up and lean into employee interests? Louis Carter, CEO and Founder of Best Practice Institute, provides insight into the five-step crisis leadership effective for such times.

Airlines have suspended flights to and from China. Hong Kong has closed borders, schools, and government offices. Passengers on flights to the US are quarantined for two weeks or more as “guests” of various military bases. Quarantines keep workers from their jobs. And employers are caught in the middle unless they have practices in place to protect and empower employees in impossible situations.

The world responds to pandemics with intensity. The sudden spread of communicable diseases like the coronavirus (now known as COVID-19) triggers reactive tactics to care for the affected. At the moment, COVID-19 is affecting tens of thousands of workers in China and threatens populations across the globe.

Victims, of course, are focused on their survival. Caregivers are concerned about their own safety. And people everywhere are monitoring the spread of the disease. Employers, then, need practices to manage their approach to such health threats.

1) Freeze international travel 

International business travel is rarely convenient, but pandemics present existential threats to employees who routinely travel. It’s a rare situation where business stakeholders must meet in person. So, in the context presented by spreading disease, technology offers multiple meeting alternatives.

Freezing travel also affords employers the opportunity to assess the value of high-risk travel. It’s a chance to measure and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of international business travel.

2) Respect quarantined workers 

People quarantined on their return from vacation, tourism, or work abroad should be treated as if on medical leave. Their isolation has been no fault of their own, and they should be returned to the same job and duties they left.

The HR function at these employers should have some policy flexibility because the absent employee may not be positioned to communicate, complete forms, and file applications for leave. And, if such medical leave would be paid, employees deserve the compensation.

While quarantined workers can continue to work remotely, they will have other things on their minds. They may be quarantined with their families or in circumstances limiting their ability to work freely.

3) Work remotely 

Employees quarantined at a facility or at home may be equipped to work remotely. Being able to work may comfort them and continue their contribution to the business. If they have been employed as “remote workers,” employee and employer can continue if the technology permits.

While quarantined workers can continue to work remotely, they will have other things on their minds. They may be quarantined with their families or in circumstances limiting their ability to work freely. Employers should be understanding and communicate their reasonable expectations clearly, fully, and early.

4) Stay well 

Employers are obliged to ensure a safe workplace. That obligation extends to protecting employees who travel. In the event of a virulent pandemic, employers must accommodate employees’ reasonable concerns about travel. They should cancel or postpone meetings, conventions, and other events in affected locations.

The employer may still order employees to travel if such travel is a bona fide part of their job description. Some employees have employees who are needed to treat the sick or to battle the spread of the disease. To sustain a positive relationship, managers should empathise and accommodate employee fears. For example, employees who are or may be pregnant require special consideration.

5) Send them home 

As a disease spreads and fatalities increase, fears intensify. People react differently, some near panic. Employers would do well to anticipate these concerns and provide a constructive and supportive culture.

Employers should require and equip universal standards for hygiene, sanitation, and prevention. They might supply masks, anti-viral hand sanitisers, and advice on healthcare in threatening situations. Where they can, they should relocate employees to reduce their contact. And, if people are reporting to work with flu-like symptoms, they should be sent home.

ALSO READ: Coronavirus: Guidelines for HR and employers on business continuity planning

Rethink policies

Traditional HR policies for managing sick employees do not address pandemic threats. They typically draw limits around absenteeism and discipline non-compliance. But events like HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, SARS, coronavirus, and other highly communicable diseases require employers to re-imagine their readiness. They must create and communicate flexible and accommodating HR, leave of absence, return to work, and workplace safety policies and practices.

Infected employees will look to their employers for understanding, protection, and respect. Other employees will monitor how management treats the ill and how it relieves their concerns. Pandemics provide HR leaders an opportunity to step up and lean into employee interests.

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