Fifth of employers still do not have a coronavirus business contingency plan, survey finds

Follow-up People Management and CIPD poll reveals some companies haven’t ‘grasped the seriousness’ of the outbreak

A fifth of organisations still have no business contingency plan in place to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, a survey of HR professionals has found.

This is almost half the number of businesses without a plan just over two weeks ago, but experts said the figure showed many companies still have not “fully grasped the seriousness” of the outbreak.

People Management and the CIPD polled HR professionals earlier this month to find out what they were doing in their organisations to deal with the threats posed to the health of employees and their businesses. After running this initial survey, People Management ran a second to find out how employers had developed or changed their response as the crisis unfolded.

The latest survey, which polled more than 390 employers, found 21 per cent of employers did not yet have a business contingency plan in place to deal with the coronavirus. This was fewer than the 39 per cent who admitted the same earlier in the month. 

Speaking to People Management, Guy Pink, portfolio careerist and former HR director at Addaction, said it was irresponsible not to have a business continuity plan as the situation could worsen still further as the UK approaches a potential European-style complete lockdown. “There are still organisations that have yet to fully grasp the severity of the situation or indeed follow the government advice,” Pink said.

But with the government suggesting it could be at least 12 months until some form of normality returns, Pink said businesses still had time left to plan. “Those organisations that have a good business continuity plan in place will have already thought through the consequences of what may be coming down the track, which will include the next phase of complete lockdown,” he said.

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Separately, Pink also criticised some employers for taking advantage of provisions to keep schools open for the children of key workers, stating that HR roles should not fall into this category. “I’ve got friends who tell me their organisations want them in as they think they’re a key worker, and you just think – you’re not in the NHS, you’re in administration or in HR, what is so key about your role?”

Pink’s comments followed reports over the weekend of employers telling staff they were key workers and eligible to send their children to school and continue working as normal, when in fact this might not be the case. 

Pet supplies chain Pets at Home faced a social media backlash after it sent a letter asserting that its staff qualified for the coronavirus key workers list. The letter was drafted by the retail company for its employees to allow them to apply to headteachers for emergency school childcare. Education leaders urged companies not to put profit over people by interpreting the key worker lists in a self-interested way, leading to too many children still being sent to school.

The People Management and CIPD poll also asked employers about their overall level of preparedness for a pandemic. Half of respondents said they had a comprehensive (11 per cent) or reasonably comprehensive level of pandemic preparedness (40 per cent) in their organisations before the outbreak, a number that remained the same across both surveys.

Abby Ghobadian, professor of management at Henley Business School, said organisations should have already had a ‘pandemic plan’ in place. He said he had seen some UK businesses planning for the eventual coronavirus outbreak, and running stress tests, as early as February. “I feel any responsible business should have had some planning before all this transpired because we have been hearing about coronavirus since January,” Ghobadian said. “But why some businesses did and why some businesses still don’t is all to do with management.

“The only thing I can put this down to is the ability of top management to read the environment to see the signals and react to those signals in an appropriate fashion.” 

Like Ghobadian, Sarah Dowzell, chief operating officer and co-founder of Natural HR, said that for the people profession a continuity plan was crucial because, in times of crisis, HR professionals were always the first port of call for concerned employees. “Without a continuity plan, your employees will be no more aware of what to do during events like the coronavirus than you will be,” Dowzell said.

“In such a rapidly changing situation, your employees will undoubtedly have questions and concerns about what is happening in your company, and having firm plans in place and being able to respond to your employees with confidence can reassure them in times of crisis.”

The People Management and CIPD poll also found improvement in the number of employers that had a plan in place for if one of their employees tested positive for coronavirus. While 16 per cent of employers responding to the second survey still did not have a plan in place, this was down from 33 per cent. 

Nearly half (45 per cent) said they would send home any staff who came into direct contact with the at-risk employee, which was unchanged since the first survey. A quarter (28 per cent) would allow employees to self-isolate if they were concerned, and a similar number (27 per cent) would immediately close the site the infected employee attended.