Coronavirus 2020: how to establish an emergency response for your business (insights from Hong Kong)

by Chris Tang in Articles

DatePosted on March 18, 2020 at 04:36 PM
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As the coronavirus outbreak begins to take hold in many parts of the world, businesses of all shapes and sizes will be experiencing a 'full on' crisis situation for the first time.

As recently as late February 2020, the general media viewed the coronavirus outbreak in Asia with a morbid fascination, together with a misguided confidence that it would never spread to their own country. There has even been a hint of schadenfreude in some quarters. That has quickly given way to wild panic among the general public as the spread of Covid-19 and the sharp rise in both infections and deaths has dominated news headlines the world over.

That aside, there is a distinct lack of articles in the general media that is targeted at HR professionals and business owners on designing a sound strategy for an emergency response to Coronavirus for their workforce. For those HR teams starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus outbreak in their country or city, it's essential to get an idea of what your organisation can and cannot do from a legal and risk management perspective and as early as possible.

One caveat. This piece is simply sharing some insights on my own personal experiences as a business owner whose business has been under siege from the Coronavirus outbreak. Nothing in this blog is intended to be legal advice. See it as resource to get you started or to help you enhance your emergency response planning. 

It's important to differentiate what's real and what's fake in the online world (photo: Camilo Jiminez)From my observing an array of comments and posts on LinkedIn, Facebook and online newspaper articles, the sheer speed and impact of the coronavirus outbreak has been met online with bewilderment, disbelief, and shock, followed by words of support and encouragement, tinged with some degree of uncertainty.  

A collective fear of the unknown is being driven by mass media and social media. Confidence is shot. And that is having a crippling effect on businesses and stock markets the world over. 

So whilst the number of deaths relative to other causes of fatalities in the same time frame is low, the Fear Factor is something that all businesses everywhere should treat with all seriousness, if anything to allay the fears of your own staff and to instill confidence in your business.  

Where to start

As someone whose city (Hong Kong) has been hit early by the outbreak, the questions that have been raised here by fellow business owners, HR professionals and indeed ourselves was: 

"As an HR professional*, where do I even begin to start with my preparation to protect my company against the spread of the Coronavirus? What should I, as a prudent leader in the business, be doing within the scope of my territory's laws to handle this crisis?"

*this question equally applies to anyone in a position of leadership or significant operational influence in their business. 

Having an effective emergency plan is eminently sensible in managing risk and promoting calm among your work force. And having a calm-headed workforce is key to steering your business through these uncharted  and choppy waters.  Many people in Hong Kong experienced living through SARS, which meant people in the city have generally been mentally prepared for what was to come (for example some firms' HR and administration teams acquired masks as soon as the events in Wuhan unfolded, and before stock supplies in the general market were depleted).

If you live outside Hong Kong, you're unlikely to have gained that experience of living in a virus outbreak. For populations where no such crisis has happened in recent living memory, having to confront the coronavirus outbreak is a far more daunting process for them, and a company's leadership needs to demonstrate particular sensitivity and empathy to allay fears in the workforce.  

Initial HR questions to consider

Sharing some experiences of my own, the key immediate HR considerations I discussed within my own business included: 

  • Which areas of the business are particularly vulnerable to the Coronavirus outbreak
  • What other threats to your business are there that may be heightened as a result (e.g. risk of cyber attacks)?  
  • What existing protective measures do we have in place?
  • What other measures do we need to implement to protect our staff? 
  • What do we (senior managers) need to convey to staff (both verbally and in written communications) to encourage calm, collaboration, and focus? 
  • What steps need to be taken in order to minimise exposure to the coronavirus in the work place?  
  • What happens in the event an employee or someone close to them has been suspected of, or diagnosed with, covid-19? 
  • How can we allow the business to run as effectively as possible, and to work around the challenges that we face? 


Most of the answers have turned out to be practical, common sense, rather than legal in nature, such as: 

  • ensuring everyone strictly adhering to personal hygiene
  • following the Hong Kong government's direction for its own staff, implementing a 'Work From Home' policy (until at least the worst of the outbreak is over)
  • setting up regular team meetings that are conducted remotely and multiple communication channels to ensure staff remain in touch with one another 
  • ensuring adequate technology support for all staff
  • telling staff to stay at home if there are signs of any illness and to notify their supervisors if they had contact with visitors who had recently travelled out of Hong Kong
  • avoiding visitors coming to the office (whilst the rates of infections continue to climb) and minimising outside contact with clients or business contacts
  • providing face masks for staff who want it
  • making hand sanitisers and cleaning products freely available in the work place
  • cleaning/disinfecting the office regularly, and keeping the office well ventilated by keeping windows open and installing more fans
  • monitoring people's temperatures and observing signs of illness upon arrival at the office
  • providing a safe and confidential environment for reporting a suspected coronavirus infection, symptoms or any other HR concerns
  • offering adequate pastoral care for all, monitoring staff morale and finding ways to keep focused and spirits high  
  • encouraging staff to avoid travel outside of Hong Kong (both during work time and on their own time) given the quarantine measures imposed by the government (a policy which has also been adopted by other country's governments) 
  • spreading work desks apart in the office
  • educating staff to actively practice 'social distancing'
  • splitting teams into different locations to prevent entire teams from being infected 
  • staggering work hours and putting a limit on the number of people in the office on any given day 


And some of these we had already implemented as a result of the pro-democracy civil movement in the preceding 8 months since there was frequent travel disruptions in the city. Further, more examples of what businesses in Hong Kong generally have been doing are set out in my earlier blog

Some of these points cannot be imposed upon staff, so seeking legal advice will help decide what goes in as an HR policy and what needs to be done to persuade employees to act in a certain way (e.g. with regards to personal travel or changing work times). Whilst some of these points could be viewed as being invasive on their own personal time, ultimately, if they are infected with the virus, it impacts on their work and colleagues.

Remember - history has shown that virus outbreaks will peak and fade, probably over the next few months, so employees need to understand that these measures are only temporary (except on personal hygiene) and working collectively in the same fashion will help minimise the risk of exposure and manage risks overall for the business. 

Operational concerns

As if that's not enough to worry about, for those involved in operations, some of the issues you'll be thinking about include: 

  • cash flow
  • commitments with (and from) customers/clients 
  • commitments with (and from) suppliers 
  • ongoing transactions (M&A, primary and secondary listings, funding, leasing, joint ventures)
  • the big elephant in the room — rent and other leasing commitments
  • bank and other debt funders
  • Private Equity, VC backers, and angel investors 
  • data privacy and cyber security 
  • ongoing duties and responsibilities to regulatory and public bodies (taxes, rates, annual filings) 
  • insurance 
  • imminent or ongoing disputes 

These and other operational issues are outside the scope of this article, save that I discuss some of the sources you can find for further investigations. Suffice it to say, if Coronavirus hasn't hit your business community just yet, don't dig your head in the sane. Have these discussions with your external stakeholders early and plan how best to respond and manage your relationships when the time comes.

And it's likely to come.     

Plan, plan, plan. And plan some more. (Photo Kelly Sikkema, unsplash)

In-house Legal Teams, GCs and Law Firms 

Quite often, the best starting point to have a discussion on strategy is with your organisation's in-house legal team, external counsel, or risk management consultants. If you do have the benefit of an in-house legal team, lucky you! You should already have been heavily involved with them to update policies or your organisation's Business Continuity Plan (BCP) to deal with business disruptions and the potential impact the outbreak may have on staff, and answering the many employee queries that inevitably arise from this unique situation.  

If you don't have an in-house legal team, seek your regular external counsel for advice. With law firms, ask the client relationship partner to offer any literature their team has written in relation to the outbreak, or if you're from a large or multi-national company with a large annual legal spend to their lawyers, see if your external counsel can hold a video conference with your HR team to give a presentation on this topic. 

Lawyers and Law Firms on Social Media

For SMEs and businesses with neither their own in-house legal team or a dedicated commercial law firm they use, the next best thing (as a starting point) is to look on law firms' and lawyers' social media. For your country/territory, look out for any articles written by commercial law firms or risk management firms there. Often they will post articles on their own website as well as on LinkedIn, or you may be subscribed to their newsletters. If in doubt, ask your organisation's own legal services providers if they have any articles or literature they can send to you on this topic.

Right now, THE place to go to for some great, up-to-date news and practical tips for HR professionals everywhere are direct from the lawyers, risk management professionals and other HR professionals on LinkedIn. 

If you're not connected on LinkedIn with any employment or commercial litigation lawyers, don't be shy, connect with several of them in different law firms in your territory on LinkedIn as well as employment and commercial litigation lawyers in the territories where your business also operates. Keep an eye on their posts and Coronavirus-related articles they write or opine on. The more social media savvy among them will be posting up frequent employment law updates, thoughts and practical tips to HR.  For those HR in Hong Kong or the UK who would like recommendations of people to follow on LinkedIn or would like to be connected with any employment law partner to assist them with their own emergency response, feel free to reach out to me. 
 

Legal Briefings 

International law firms, local law societies, bar associations, the Association of Corporate Counsel and other in-house counsel interest groups have produced excellent free resources to raise awareness of the legal implications to businesses around the world. Of course, there are only so many articles from so many law firms, I cannot post up resources for every country, so here's just a selection. 

Addleshaw Goddard — covering a multitude of sectors and practice areas in the UK and the Middle East.

Allen & Overy — insights and briefings covering mainly Asia and Europe

Ashurst —  responding to the coronavirus outbreak in Australia, UK. Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

Bird & Bird — legal briefings covering different aspects of business, and each briefing covering different countries worldwide. 

Clifford Chance — legal briefings covering different aspects of business, mainly focusing on English law, with some coverage of the Apac, Africa and Italy.  

Clyde & Co — business and specialist insurance implications generally (other articles on the legal impact on other aspects of business in their general news updates) 

DLA Piper — resource centre with briefings split into topics and sectors covering multiple countries

Freshfields — knowledge centre with briefings, blogs, insights, more blogs, covering English law, the US, Asia, and China 

Lewis Silkin — covers employment and HR issues affected by the Coronavirus in the UK

Mayer Brown — "Covid-19 Portal" with insights from across their global offices 

Mayer Brown — employer's obligation in handling the Novel Coronavirus (Hong Kong)

Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) — Dealing with the Covid-19 (2019-nCov) Coronavirus Epidemic: Resources for In-house Counsel


The USA

Many US-based commercial law firms will have their resource page dedicated to legal issues revolving around Covid-19, and one firm's website seemingly brimming with information on this is that of US employment law firm, Fisher Phillips

Elsewhere, there is increasing discussion on the impact of Coronavirus on employment legal rights. 

Q&A from SHRM (HR: can I stay home from work because of Coronavirus?)

The Los Angeles Times: Coronavirus and labor law: Know your rights, from paid sick leave to working from home

The Washington Post: Paid sick leave: Who gets it during the coronavirus outbreak  

Connect with local employment lawyers in territories where your business operates (photo credit: capturing the human heart, unsplash)

Need a lawyer or law firm in your city? 

To find a law firm specialising in the area you need advice on, look at the global legal directory, Legal 500

It's simple. Go to your region, then country, then city, and click into 'Employment', which will give you your city or country's leading law firms who specialise in employment law. Or if you're based in any of the following, connect with me on LinkedIn and I would be happy to provide some recommendations: Hong Kong, England, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur. 

Good luck!

To wrap it all up, as an HR leader in your organisation, tackle the issues head on, engage with key stakeholders, draw in and coordinate expertise from different parts of the business, show leadership, thoughtfulness and compassion.  This is your moment to shine, to take a lead on crisis management and bring out the best in your work force.

Senior management will LOVE you for taking the initiative. 

 

Further information

This list will be supplemented over time. If you have any recommendations, please post in the comments below. 

The Hong Kong Centre for Health and Protection (CHP): https://www.coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/index.html 

CHP health advice (visual guide) on preventing respiratory illness

World Health Organisation (WHO) page on Covid-19

WHO guide on the use of face masks (note, this differs culturally in Hong Kong and China, where it's the norm for most members of the public to wear face masks in public)

 

Did you enjoy this article?

Share your experiences in the comments below. Connect with me or follow me on LinkedIn

This article was first published on the Star Anise Legal knowledge hub: https://www.staranise.com.hk/knowledge-hub/articles/coronavirus-emergency-response-hr-covid-19-how-to.html

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About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/tangchris/

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