The Ebola Scare: 10 Workplace Issues HR Should Be Ready For

You might initially think that Ebola is only a medical issue, but corporate leaders, HR, and recruiting professionals should realize that any Ebola-related panic and anxiety will also negatively impact an organization’s employees and candidates.

Take a moment to visualize this possible scenario where during the upcoming flu season employees will irrationally stress, panic, and avoid other employees and customers who appear to be even slightly symptomatic. Envision an HR function that will be bombarded with questions and concerns about sick leave, medical benefits, and a variety of Ebola related issues.

So if you operate under the philosophy that it’s better to be prepared than surprised, prepare for the possibility that the fear of the Ebola disease alone will result in severe employee stress, turmoil, and lower productivity.

10 Ebola-related issues HR should be ready for

I have written extensively since 9/11 about the need for HR to proactively prepare for disasters. And although no one knows precisely what will happen in the future, I predict that there will be numerous complex employee issues related to Ebola that corporate leaders should immediately begin preparing for. The potential Ebola-related issues that you should prepare for include:

  1. Employees will be distracted from their work – Be ready for a significant portion of your employees to be stressed, anxious, and distracted as a result of this issue. In most firms this may only affect productivity by 5 percent, but in healthcare and all firms where employees frequently interact with the public, expect a much higher employee distraction rate. Proactively addressing Ebola-related employee issues with speed, transparency, and authenticity will become an absolute requirement if you want employees to remain fully focused on their work.
  2. Recruiting issues – Obviously if you are recruiting or transferring people into a geographic area like Dallas that is known to that have Ebola issues, you have to expect some added resistance among prospects and candidates. Transportation firms, building maintenance firms, and obviously hospitals will have to be able to demonstrate to recruits that they have done everything possible to mitigate any dangers to their employees.
  3. Miscommunications –In all disasters, there is an increase in the amount of rumors, false alarms, and stories that quickly spread virally throughout the organization. Most of these rumors won’t even be true, but HR and the communications function must be proactive in providing timely and accurate information and instantly countering any related rumors through email, text, and mobile phone messages. As anxiety levels increase, consider surveying a sample of your workers to identify their issues, concerns, and the actions that they expect.
  4. Employee relations issues – Be prepared for situations where individual employees panic when they think there is an employee or customer with a possible Ebola transmission issue. Be prepared to have some employees arbitrarily walk off the job, to refuse to work alongside some coworkers, or even having some berating customers that they think have Ebola symptoms. Managers will have to be trained and educated on what to do in all likely scenarios. Some employees may even quit if they perceive that the firm’s reaction to the crisis is inadequate or if their risk is high.
  5. Sick leave issues – Sick-leave-related issues will likely explode because no one will want to work with a coworker who they fear that might have or might develop the disease. Firms may have to prohibit their employees with any form of fever, diarrhea, or vomiting issues from entering the workplace. And if individual employees are forced to stay home, they will have to be accommodated under ADA. That means that if possible, they should be offered work-at-home options. In order to discourage symptomatic non-exempt workers from coming to work, they may have to be paid for as many as 21 days. Managers will have to be trained and a special Ebola team may have to be put together to handle suddenly sick employees that may need to be sent directly to the hospital. All of these issues may require a temporary change in sick leave policies and it certainly will mean that the number of questions related to sick and medical leave will increase dramatically.
  6. Medical benefits issues – When your employees are worried about Ebola, expect them to contact the employee benefits function with numerous questions about their medical coverage. Employee assistance and counseling options will have to be examined in order to determine and communicate what services are available to employees.  And in the rare case where an employee actually gets the disease, every employee will want to know if the firm’s benefits coverage and treatment of the employee is adequate.
  7. Travel issues — Getting salespeople and employees to travel to Africa or a problem area anywhere in the world will become an issue. This may negatively affect business results, especially at firms that do a lot of business in infected geographic areas.
  8. Bias against those that appear to have been to Africa – If one of your employees perceives someone who they come in contact with on-the-job has recently traveled in Africa, you can expect an emotional reaction. Also, negative reactions and even direct discrimination may occur if a customer is simply perceived to be wearing clothing that the employee judges to be “African” (even if they haven’t recently been to Africa).
  9. Stock and business issues – The Ebola crisis itself will likely negatively impact the entire economy and the stock market. Individual firms that are impacted by Ebola concerns (especially those in public transportation, hotels, restaurants, and retail) will find their business results negatively impacted, in some cases even if the public perceives that they are handling the crisis effectively.
  10. The handling of an actual Ebola case – In the unlikely situation that an employee at a firm (outside of health care) actually develops the disease, the firm’s leaders will have to assume that all employees, managers, and customers will watch corporate actions closely. An in-house or a specialized vendor team will also undoubtedly be required to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

Final thoughts

Organizations can’t operate in isolation, so corporate and HR leaders must remain aware of how external events like Ebola may impact them. We obviously all hope that Ebola won’t turn into a major epidemic, but at least in my view, it still makes sense to prepare for the worst case scenario.

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Start by revisiting and learning from previous disaster plans (terrorism, flu, weather disasters, etc.). Next, firms need to educate their managers about the range of possible employee problems and it must provide them with effective tools and approaches that they feel comfortable using.

HR should urge managers to talk directly to their employees about these issues but they should also provide an internal information website and designate an HR person to be the primary contact for talent management issues that individual managers can’t handle.

And finally, corporate leaders should work with HR to expand and improve this list of potential employee problems. The time for corporate leaders to act is now, well before my projected high level of Ebola related employee anxiety becomes a reality.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



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