The headlines today are filled with stories of new outbreaks and deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, now known as Covid-19.
The uncertainty now is enormous. The impact on business is already being felt. Though most businesses are and will continue to stay open, many are already adjusting. Microsoft and Facebook have canceled upcoming user conferences. Amazon is restricting non-essential business travel; many airlines are limiting their routes. Spread of the disease may even affect public events – there is some discussion about conducting March Madness as a tournament with no actual in-person spectators.
We don’t know how broadly this virus will spread or the harm it will cause our communities and our nation. We do know that uncertainty can cause panic and fear in our workplaces in terms of preventing teamwork and trust while also causing some to avoid speaking up about concerns and risks they may encounter that need to be brought forward.
At a fundamental level, every organization should be following the CDC and NIH guidelines in deciding how to help limit the spread of the virus. They should also have plans for how to deal with people who appear to be visibly ill yet, for a variety of reasons, refuse to remain home. Organizations should encourage their employees to let HR, medical, or other designated resources engage in other fact-finding as necessary and in line with organizational policies
In many organizations, work-from-home policies that include specific standards for performance can be used to keep key jobs open and functioning. As an example, at ELI we have recently revised our work-from-home policies. We intend to look at these and apply them as needed to allow our team members to work remotely as circumstances require in conditions which may not have been originally contemplated.
Organizations should be concerned about behaviors springing from the virus’ spread that will serve only to disrupt their workplaces, cause damage to working relationships, and impede focus and effectiveness.
But what many organizations overlook is that viral outbreaks don’t represent just biological contagion. Historically, times of crisis can bring out the worst in people rather than the best. Fear and prejudice and uncivil behavior can spread even faster than the virus itself. A new op-ed in The New York Times by Harvard professor Hannah Marcus points out that prejudice against supposed carriers has been a documented part of responses to epidemics for centuries.
It appears the coronavirus originated in China. I’ve already heard and read about incidents when individuals of Asian ethnicity and/or backgrounds have been shunned or avoided based solely on their heritage.
Organizations should be concerned about behaviors springing from the virus’ spread that will serve only to disrupt their workplaces, cause damage to working relationships, and impede focus and effectiveness. Such behaviors can not only affect standard operations, but make people reluctant to speak up about concerns. They are a form of racial stereotyping, discrimination and potential harassment, which may violate the law and certainly organizational values and policies.
During this time of enduring workplace risk, it’s vital that individuals be reminded that such conduct is unaccepted and will not be tolerated. Disparaging comments, stereotypical insults and “jokes” should not be said or communicated to others in person or via social media and other forms of communication. It is unacceptable to make derogatory comments linking the ethnicity of any individual to the spread of the disease. These behaviors will drive people apart and diminish trust when just the opposite is needed and leave scars long after this immediate crisis has eased.
So, the question is, what is your plan to help maintain a civil, productive workplace?
This is a time to look for ways that your leaders can emphasize your organization’s policies and values of respect and inclusion. The key themes are to follow your policies, to not allow people to shun, ostracize, embarrass, annoy or stereotype others on the grounds that they are members of a group that are the “carriers” of a disease.
What many organizations overlook is that viral outbreaks don’t represent just biological contagion. Times of crisis can bring out the worst in people rather than the best. Fear and prejudice and uncivil behavior can spread even faster than the Coronavirus virus itself.
It would be wise to remind everyone in the workplace that jokes, insults, or stereotyping comments about those spreading the virus—who they are or where they’re from and what they do—are also divisive and harmful. This is true no matter whether the object of the comment is a coworker, colleague, customer, or really anyone, and whether the comments are spoken out loud or posted on email or social media.
Organizational communication of all types—formal and informal, one-on-one or broadly distributed—should emphasize that people who have fears about working in an area or with those who exhibit symptoms should bring their concerns forward. In fact, the message should be that leadership wants to hear about all concerns so any and all issues can be properly discussed, checked out and, as appropriate, addressed.
Enterprise values are put in place not just for periods of calm and uncertainty. They can help us get through challenging times delivering our best efforts as we work together to identify solutions and minimize harm. Leadership should set the tone by working together with respect, inclusion, and civility even as difficult issues arise as an antidote to uncertainty and fear. It’s time again to remember that as we approach this newest crisis.