Making Sure The Decade-Worst Flu Epidemic Doesn’t Slow Your Company To A Crawl

The flu epidemic, worst in about a decade, is knocking business productivity for a loop and could even take a chink out of the expanding U.S. GDP if it persists. The flu is keeping people home and away from work and making them less effective when they are there, and also discouraging them from going out into the marketplace to spend money.

But CEOs and their HR departments can be effective in making sure the flu virus doesn’t victimize their companies any more than necessary. Their approach should combine proactivity in terms of mitigating the spread of flu through their ranks with an acknowledgement of medical, cultural and legal limits on what they can do, says the chief of a leading people-management firm.

“There are a lot of practical, common-sense steps you can take which will help a lot, even as you make sure that you don’t run afoul of legal considerations,” Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., told Chief Executive. PEOs, or professional employer organizations, provide HR services to small- and mid-sized businesses.

“Nothing might be more effective than paying to give flu shots to employees who want to get them.”

Here’s Starkman’s advice on how company leadership can respond to the ongoing flu epidemic:

Minimize meetings: It’s a popular strategy right now, Starkman said. Meetings are “putting a whole bunch of people in a closed conference room to communicate something,” he said. “You might as well call it a petri dish.”

Encourage telecommuting: If a company’s culture and operations have ways to allow more telecommuting, at least temporarily, employers should provide for and encourage that until the epidemic passes, Starkman said. “It can give you some insulation against flu spreading through an office like wildfire.”

Offer free flu shots: Nothing might be more effective than paying to give flu shots to employees who want to get them. “You can’t require it, of course,” Starkman said. “And there’s the whole issue of whether it’s effective against the current strain of flu. But it can go pretty far toward minimizing the hit to productivity. You just can’t single out people who don’t get them.”

Take practical flu-mitigation steps: These can include things like requiring employees to wash their hands after using a bathroom, showing them how to sneeze and cough into tissues, and even providing masks if they want to wear them. Staples suggests companies establish a “cold & flu care” center that is stocked with comforts ranging from Tylenol to Kleenex to cough drops to green tea.

Communicate candidly: Dealing with the flu is  a serious problem not only for companies but for the households of many of their employees. “We’re seeing children and old people and other people dying,” Starkman noted. “You want to talk about this seriously and say that we want o take appropriate steps to ensure a strong working environment here.

Consider legal limitations … : Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and fair-employment statutes, certain inquiries by employers could run afoul of the law, Starkman said. These include “asking an employee whether they have a medical condition that could make them vulnerable to the flu.” Also, bosses can’t take an employee’s temperature or do a medical examination on site, and can’t require anyone to take a flu shot. “They may have a disability that would require them to avoid it,” he said.

Employers have been shown to be within their rights “sending someone home if they’re exhibiting flu-like symptoms,” Starkman said. “You can’t ask what’s going on with them, but we all know what the flu looks like.”

… And consider legal requirements: On the other hand, Starkman said, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are required “to provide a safe working environment for their employees, and there have been cases where allowing people suffering from bad flu to be in your workplace has run afoul of that.” In some cases, in fact, under OSHA, “You could be required to send someone home.”