It is a deeply concerning scenario for employers and managers today: You receive a phone call with the news that one of your employees has tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19). Do you have a response plan? Have you considered how you will communicate with your other employees, their families and other stakeholders?
Tripepi Smith has experience assisting in these types of communications, and here are some tips we can pass along:
1) Rely Solely on Official Information.
In the scenario described above, your response depends entirely on who that phone call was from. Did you receive the news directly from the sick individual or a family member, or was it from your official local health agency? Only act based upon information that is received from or verified by an official, trusted source. If in doubt, verify any information with your official local health agency leading your jurisdiction’s COVID-19 response.
2) Remember HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
Before communicating any information, remember that HIPAA requires the protection and confidential handling of protected health information. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, public health agencies appear to be interpreting HIPAA requirements in different ways and sharing various degrees of detail. The Federal Government is also evolving HIPAA disclosure policies to allow more flexibility for public health professionals to notify and promote isolation action. Check with your official local health agency and agency attorney for guidance on what you can and cannot divulge about your situation.
3) Synchronize Communications with Lead Agencies.
Is your official local health agency going to be publishing the news about your organization’s case? And if so, do you know the date and time of their release, and exactly what information they plan to share? Ensure you are aware of their information and timing, and align your communications accordingly. If your organization will be identified in the communications, plan to synchronize your release of information as closely as possible and be prepared for stakeholder questions to start coming in.
4) Stay In Your Lane.
Communication is key to effectively leading and managing during times of crisis. However, it is important to remember to “stay in your lane.” Think about what information you are responsible for sharing with your key stakeholders, versus what topics are best to defer to subject matter experts (such as your official local health agency). The information in your purview is your “lane.” Know it and stick to it, and refer requests for other types of information to the respective subject matter experts.
5) Rally Your Leadership Team.
Identify the leaders and experts on your team that you need dialed into the situation. Establish clear roles and, if necessary, develop a rotating schedule for who will be responsible at various times. Depending on the scope of your situation, you may need to anticipate being responsive outside normal business hours. Divvying out roles and responsibilities early-on will help your team avoid burnout.
6) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.
Once you’ve confirmed your communication parameters with your official local health agency (in compliance with HIPAA) and you’ve identified your “lane,” communicate the information you can share with the stakeholders with whom you can. Use every tool in your communication toolkit, such as a dedicated webpage, FAQs, press releases, direct emails and social media. While communicating this news may not seem intuitive, it is best for your stakeholders to see your organization as leading, being transparent and addressing concerns –rather than being passive and reactive.
7) Remind Employees How to Respond In Case of Media Contacts.
If your organization has an employee test positive for COVID-19, you can bet that members of the media will begin contacting you, your employees and their families. Refresh your employees about any policies you may have regarding being contacted by the media. If your organization has a Public Information Officer or similar function, you may wish to encourage employees to refer all media to the Public Information Officer or other designated point of contact.
8) Avoid Speculation.
This is a rapidly evolving situation. In a scenario where an employee tests positive for COVID-19, you may hear that the person’s health is trending better or worse, or you may hear that it looks like there is no community spread, but only share current facts! You may think you know what tomorrow may bring, but avoid communicating projections or speculations to avoid having to backtrack or correct the record later.
9) Remember Empathy.
At the core of your communications, remember empathy. You may not be a subject matter expert on infectious disease or public health, but your leadership and communication are important to your employees. Be clear, be strong, be supportive and remember: We’re all in this together.