Pandemics: Communicate With Employees Without Increasing Fear Unduly

room of socially-distanced colleagues wearing masks

Are you communicating to your organization’s people about Coronavirus? If not, it’s time. As you do, it may help to revisit the following practices. 

First, carefully consider the order of information

Use this reader-considerate information hierarchy to ensure the message is received and processed by employees calmly. This structure can underpin pretty much any communication — an email, a speech, a statement, a video etc.

  1. How are your people doing? Is anyone among the team affected? What will the organization do to help its people who may be affected already or in harm’s way.
  2. What can we say to customers? Is our ability to support them going to be hampered? If so, what can we say we’ll do about it? Are there additional resources the organization can offer to customers?
  3. What do you need employees to do? Are there special protocols in place that need to be enacted? Do they need to reschedule events, flights or change plans in any way?
  4. What can employees do to help? Is there a way for employees in unaffected areas to contribute time, money through a relief fund, skills, or ideas to help those who are affected? Does the company have a special link to an employee relief fund or another way to contribute? Does the company match any of these donations or free up time for volunteers?

Second, don’t report the news

Pandemics and other natural disasters unfold quickly. Your job is not to report on the crisis, but rather to ensure employees have the information they need to get their work done. Even opening emails or other communiques with a light summary of the situation can be very counterproductive as it will quickly go out of date and may fan the flames of anxiety. 

Consider the difference between these two leads:

“As the Coronavirus pandemic edges up to 100,000 victims and more than 3000 dead, we’re asking all employees to take the following actions.”


“Please see the information below for all employees in light of the Coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, we advise checking with governmental agencies and major news outlets for reliable information.” 

Looking for a link to use? Try the CDC’s page on Coronavirus, which they update regularly. It’s also not a bad idea to circulate the basic hygiene information that you might share during flu season anyway.

Finally, do the math before making big moves

It’s cold comfort, to be sure, to realize that a virus may already have spread further than reported and may therefore be less deadly. But major step-changes in the numbers brought about by more accurate reporting can influence leaders to take more drastic measures than necessary.

As any disaster unfolds — particularly pandemics — the reporting on the severity will grab headlines. In the case of a disease outbreak, it is likely that the ability to run tests will greatly influence the reported cases and fatalities, which in turn leads to what seems like major step-changes in the severity of the outbreak. Yet, if there’s limited testing, the positive results will also be limited and therefore potentially underreported. 

Interrogate and analyze the news reporting for these statistical realities before drawing the conclusion that “things have suddenly gone from bad to worse.” Advise your leadership away from making pronouncements about the severity — whether it is increasing or decreasing — because the data as reported may obscure the true trendline.

Above all, be forthright and compassionate in your communications. Employees increasingly look to employers as a reputable source of information about societal issues and seek clarity and a point of view that they can trust.

If you have communications in flight or a plan underway and you’d like a set of experienced eyes on it, by all means let us know how we can help.