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  • Writer's pictureScott Sutherland

Scenario Planning: When An Employee Tests Positive

If they have not already, most businesses are going to be confronting the dilemma about what needs to be communicated if a colleague is diagnosed with COVID-19. Here is a checklist that might help manage the process around communicating this diagnosis to internal and external audiences.

What do I do if one of our employees tests positive for COVID-19?

Probably the most important thing here is to remember you are dealing with a human being who could become very ill. That’s worth keeping top of mind no matter what you decide you need to do from a communications standpoint. You need to respect this person’s privacy in a time of medical crisis. NEVER refer to your co-worker as “infected.”

Positive diagnosis probably needs to be divided into two categories: internal or external. First, determine if the employee has had contact with outside clients or customers. If this is the case, it’s imperative that the diagnosis be announced.

What if that employee is our CEO?

Outside of what is outlined above, you should have planning in place for the possibility of a company officer, or your CEO, testing positive for the coronavirus. This includes succession planning, meaning who becomes Interim CEO should a diagnosis be confirmed (particularly if your CEO is in the vulnerable category). The stage of growth of your company is important too. Public companies practice succession planning as part of their fiduciary duties to shareholders, but it’s equally important if you’re a well known private company to have these plans in place. If you’re an early stage startup, it’s a good time to have conversations on who would be the best candidates for interim coverage should one of the management team become ill.

When do I need to issue a news release?

If the affected employee did have contact with clients or outside parties or vendors, it’s advisable that you make this diagnosis public. But there are steps you should take in coordination with HR. First, it’s important that the colleague with the diagnosis be removed from the workplace and required to self-quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. Individuals with a positive diagnosis are supposed to be quarantined—even from family members—so your company may need to make sure this employee can conform to this quarantine requirement.

It’s imperative to gather as much information as possible from this employee about which outside parties they may have had contact with and when. Your business should notify these outside parties as soon as possible and assure them you will keep them posted on this employee's condition and treatment.

If it’s determined that the affected employee has had outside exposure that requires public disclosure, this template might be helpful for crafting a news release.

If it’s the CEO, or a well known company officer, it’s important to have anticipated media inquiries and know your responses in advance. Depending on your brand (e.g., if it’s a consumer brand with a large following and a celebrity CEO), it may make sense for he/she to announce it on Twitter, and send the note to all employees to reassure and keep them calm. Each of these decisions requires careful consideration, evaluating pros and cons, and staying up to date of what other companies have done and how that’s been received amongst audiences.

What do I need to tell coworkers about a positive diagnosis?

If the employee's contact has been limited to colleagues and co-workers, then you need to focus on internal communication. Work closely with HR to determine what kind of resources your company can make available to employees who had contact with the impacted employee. Encourage impacted employees to self quarantine and keep HR informed of their medical condition.

It’s imperative that the entire workplace is notified when there’s been a positive diagnosis. The identity of this employee should never be disclosed. The person’s workspace location or department is the closest a business should come to identifying the affected employee.

Internal communication should invite employees who fear they have been exposed to connect with HR personnel to determine the course of action that is best for protecting their health. Current CDC guidelines recommend that anyone exposed to a diagnosed individual self-quarantine for 14 days. This quarantine includes isolation from non-diagnosed family members in the same household

Do I need to report a positive diagnosis to public health officials or the CDC?

There is no requirement that businesses report positive diagnosis to public health officials. Physicians and healthcare workers are responsible for reporting positive diagnosis.

What do I say if the media inquires about a positive diagnosis?

Even if it’s determined that only an internal disclosure is required, companies should expect that revealing a positive diagnosis—even to their own workforce—is probably going to lead to public disclosure that will require a public statement. And this template statement may be helpful when just responding to incoming media inquiries.

Statements to the media should start with emphasizing the company’s care and concern for the affected employee and their colleagues.. But it’s also important to show that you are helping protect the community and public by informing the impacted employee about CDC guidelines for self quarantine.


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