The nearly empty Solana shopping plaza in Beijing.

The world is worried about the coronavirus, but how do you handle the employees that are under your care? 

The quick answer for corporate and h.r. chieftains is to communicate — get staff accurate information about the outbreak, be clear about travel and sick-day policies and make sure all the hand washing and disinfecting that’s advised anyway for the seasonal flu is getting done. 

It’s an easy to miss but important step to navigating the crisis. 

Already, fashion companies are reacting as best they can in real time and, in many areas, searching for supply chain workarounds for China and warning Wall Street of steep declines. (Ralph Lauren Corp. was the latest on Thursday, predicting a $55 million to $70 million hit to revenues and $35 million to $45 million impact on operating profits in the fourth quarter. That’s out of an Asian business with revenues of $273 million and operating income of $38 million a year earlier.) 

As more stores go dark, business travel grinds to a halt, fashion shows are canceled or rescheduled and investments are put on hold, top executives and h.r. are on the front lines — managing dangers that range from real and imminent to remote but worrisome. 

For instance, more than 15,000 new cases of the virus were reported in China on Thursday as doctors started using a new standard for testing. In all, there are more than 60,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1,370 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins tally.

The dramatic upswing on Thursday shook faith in the official tallies and signaled that the crisis that has practically shut down China — the great growth hope of the retail world — is far from over. 

But at the same time, the danger right now in the West is considered low. A much bigger concern in the U.S. is the seasonal flu, which is surging and has sickened up to 31 million and killed up to 30,000 since October, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

One of the problems when it comes to calming worried workers is that everyone has questions, but there are so few answers. And this is an area that goes beyond the expertise of the average luxury titan. Indeed, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief executive officer Bernard Arnault felt compelled to remind investors “I’m not a doctor” recently, and Kering head François-Henri Pinault, stressed that his expertise was not “scientific.” 

But they and the heads of the big brands in Europe and the U.S. oversee sprawling businesses and are called on to be hand holders in chief, even if they have to speak in generalities when addressing their massive workforces.  

“Our hearts are with the many impacted by this virus,” said Ralph Lauren, executive chairman and chief creative officer. “Our number-one priority is keeping our teams, partners and consumers safe.”

That’s a sentiment that’s been articulated time and again from fashion c-suites. 

The trick for companies is to make sure that h.r. specialists and direct managers are speaking to employees and know how to react. 

Consultant Beth Bovis, a senior partner in Kearney’s leadership, change and organization practice, said there are three keys for companies coping with the coronavirus.

The first is to have a reasonable policy that’s communicated to operations in China and covers topics like flexible work schedules, commuting and international travel. 

Bovis said most companies have done this. 

It’s a moot case in some places, such as Wuhan, where the outbreak started and has hit the hardest, but is more useful elsewhere in the country. 

Bovis said h.r. departments need to go farther and become “a source of factual information” noting, “very often h.r. shies away from saying anything because this is an evolving situation.”

But the nature of the crisis and the speed at which it’s moving makes communication the more important. 

“What are the actual facts? What’s my risk? I’m a domestic retail employee and I have thousands of people coming into my store every day, should I go to work?” Bovis said h.r. departments need to be able to step up with information to answer these questions, pointing out, for instance, that as of now, a sales associate in the U.S. is more likely to run into complications from the seasonal flu than the coronavirus.

And Bovis said many companies can do a better job of proactively reaching out to employees, to communicate the information and policies they need to know to manage their own responses to the outbreak, knowing, for instance, when they can work from home.

“The real issue [for the workers] is I feel no control,” she said. Giving them resources and things they can control will help curb their anxiety. 

“It’s a fine line,” Bovis said, describing the delicate balance business leaders have to reach. “Nobody likes to say, ‘Well, our hands are tied,’ but in some ways, the most important thing is to not just throw up your hands and say you can’t do anything.”

The starting point is simple enough.

The CDC guidelines for businesses advises companies to:  

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home. 
  • Forego any requirement that a note from a doctor when employees have acute respiratory illness. 
  • Plan to be able to respond in a flexible way if there is an outbreak locally. 
  • And to not make determinations of risk based on race or country of origin. 

Certainly, Pinault doesn’t need that last reminder. While many editors, buyers and influencers from Asia are expected to be no shows at the upcoming fashion shows in Europe, he said the velvet rope is being held open. 

“If any Chinese guests would like to come to our shows, they are welcome, to be very clear, and they will even be seated next to me,” Pinault said.

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