Jason O’Sullivan: COVID-19 crisis management tips for business
Jason O’Sullivan, solicitor and public affairs consultant at J.O.S Solicitors, offers a practical guide to Irish businesses on steps to take in preparation for the coronavirus crisis.
“It will be like nothing in our living memory” was the dire warning delivered this week by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Government’s press briefing on novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Much of what was said on Monday sent alarm bells ringing throughout the nation but that particular phrase stands out as a seminal moment, articulating the gravity in what could be faced by Ireland and its citizens. There is little doubt the implications of this virus will have a devastating effect on the way of life as we know it for the foreseeable future.
It is already having a major impact on Irish businesses across certain industries, particularly the tourist and hospitality sectors, while others will follow swiftly as disruption intensifies over the coming number of weeks and months as predicted.
We are therefore in a time of a major societal, health and economic crisis, making it imperative for all businesses to have contingency plans in place and to adopt effective crisis management strategies to mitigate negative impact.
Given the enormity of the challenge COVID-19 presents to our country and to the entire world, there is no “silver bullet” tactic that businesses can take in dealing with the crisis alone. Instead it is crucial that businesses take a number of prudent and immediate steps to prepare as best they can.
1. Review of internal employment policies and contracts
An immediate review of the company’s employment handbook and employee contracts is paramount to help employers identify and update specific policies relating to sick leave, short-term/temporary lay-off, remote working, reporting illness, staff travel restrictions and of course health and safety procedures in the workplace.
Such policies, if existent, should both guide and inform employers on how best to prepare and initiate all necessary actions as required in dealing with staff members who may need to self-quarantine, work remotely for a period or care for a family members who becomes infected with the virus. Overall, these polices will need to be adaptable to change and updated as required.
If an employer does not have the basic employment law structures in place such as an employee handbook and employee contracts, they will be left in a precarious legal position. Employers could face potential lawsuits if they fail to act fairly and appropriately with employees or breach any rights and entitlements in the absence of such contractual terms.
2. Clear communication to stakeholders
Businesses have stakeholders at every level - staff, suppliers, customers, shareholders, banks and in some cases even media, depending on the brand and size of the business. It will be crucial for senior management to pro-actively communicate clearly and confidently to its many stakeholders on how the business is coping with and managing the crisis, adopting key messages as required to suit the audience.
In times of economic peril, it is important for those in leadership roles to convey a sense of calm and denote a confidence they have matters in hand, as to avoid mass hysteria or panic. This communicative style of approach is the one currently been utilised by the Irish Government and its emergency task force who are charged with providing daily updates on the tackling of this ever growing challenge.
Keeping up to date with communications from the Department of Health will also be required by business owners, as to ensure proper protocols are been adhered too, particularly in the event a positive case occurring within the confines of the business premises.
A ‘holding statement’ may also need to be issued to the media in high-profiled instances, to bide valuable time for a more definite response on what actions are being taken by the organisation.
3. Get finance safeguards in place
In times of economic instability as we have seen on the global markets this week, “cash is king” and will be vital for the survival of most commercial operations affected by COVID-19. There has already been positive measures announced by the Irish banks and Government this week aimed to help Irish businesses affected by the impending crisis. Nonetheless it will still be hugely important for businesses to engage early with their banks and lenders to ensure such emergency funding or overdraft facilities are ring-fenced for their organisation in anticipation of a continual fiscal downturn and strain on capital.
4. Evaluate internal operation systems
Businesses will need to evaluate how it operates internally to see where it can demonstrate agility in adapting to necessary organisational and operational change.
For instance, they should scrutinise all aspects of its supply chain up to the end product or service, particularly if it’s a manufacturing, retail or products based entity. Given the level of globalisation, many Irish businesses rely heavily on countries such as China in the provision of part supplies and raw materials integral to the overall finished product for sale. The earlier a company can understand and identify weaknesses within its own supply chain will enable it to identify either alternative suppliers from different jurisdictions or secondary methods to achieve a finished product or service delivery.
Former US President John F. Kennedy famously once said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.”
Albeit a wise and positive statement to ponder, the sheer magnitude of this current crisis fails to present any apparent opportunities right now; except the very clear dangers at hand for the world to face.
The upgrading of COVID-19 from epidemic to a pandemic, highlights the scale of danger to our public health, society and economy, which is unprecedented for modern times. It is therefore vital for businesses and individuals alike to prepare as best they can and take all necessary steps in mitigating such danger.
- Jason O’Sullivan is a solicitor and public affairs consultant at J.O.S Solicitors.