Survey of HR Preparedness for Flu Pandemic

A survey of how employers are dealing with the impact a pandemic might have on human resources strategy, policies, and practices in their organizations


In April 2006 ORC Worldwide (ORC) conducted a survey of employers in order to learn something about the state of preparedness planning in case of a flu pandemic—an eventuality government and private experts now consider to be very possible, even probable. We were particularly interested in how employers are dealing with the impact such a pandemic might have on human resources strategy, policies, and practices in their organizations. One hundred twenty-nine employers responded to our survey; 13 of them said they are going to rely solely on existing disaster plans or that they do not intend to do any planning for a pandemic at all. Of the 116 employers who are engaged in pandemic preparedness planning, 29 percent have completed their planning, 52 percent are in the process, and another 19 percent intend to start soon.

The rest of this summary will review the actions being undertaken by these 116 employers.

Demographics of Participating Employers

A brief profile of the respondents will help to put the information in context: Throughout this report, we note differences in responses that appeared among segments of the population. In cases where differences were minor or deemed of little significance, they are not mentioned.

Most of the participants are headquartered in either North America or Western Europe. We also had respondents from Asia, Australia, and Eastern Europe.

38% of partcipants headquartered in Western Europe, 57% in North America, 5 participants elsewhere

Most of the organizations represented are multinational, with employees in all settled regions of the world.

The bar chart below shows the percentage of participants with employees located in each region.

Percentage of participants with employees in each of the world regions

Most of the employers in the survey are for-profit companies; 18 percent are not-for-profit organizations. (One, included in the nonprofit category, is a governmental agency.)

They are almost equally divided between primarily service providers and manufacturers.

52% of participants are service providers, 48% are in manufacturing

They vary in size from those with more than 100,000 employees to those with fewer than 5,000 as shown in the chart below.

Workforce size distribution among participants

Motivations for Planning

Most respondents profess themselves as “somewhat concerned” about a possible flu pandemic. Thirty-nine percent are very concerned. The most common reason for concern, especially in manufacturing firms and not-for-profits, is that the organization employs a large number of employees in regions outside the HQ country. Half of the respondents have lean organizations that would be seriously affected if a number of employees became ill.

In their written comments, many respondents underscored that their organizations’ first priority is the welfare of their employees. It was also clear that many are struggling with how to plan for an event that is so difficult to predict. Uncertainty about the timing and severity of a pandemic have led some to create alternate plans for different scenarios or to conduct “table top” exercises with decision makers.

A number of respondents noted their efforts to align their processes with government plans at the central and local levels and expressed some frustration with the variance in preparedness of various localities.

Structure of the Planning Effort

Only two companies have turned to an outside consultant to lead the pandemic planning effort. Eighty-four percent have already named or intend to name an internal leader or coordinator. Even more, 87 percent, are using a cross-functional team to prepare pandemic plans. The teams most commonly include members from HR, occupational safety and health, operations, and security. About half the companies included representatives of the business units or regions on the team, but these numbers increase dramatically for companies with over 50,000 employees. Fewer than half—but, again, more of the larger companies—have supply chain/purchasing or business planning expertise on the team.

The number one broad topic area with which these committees are grappling is the human resources implications of a pandemic, with facilities and IT support close behind. Supply-chain issues are being dealt with by only about two-thirds of the participating organizations, more so by larger organizations (those with over 10,000 employees). Other issues being addressed by a number of participants included communications, security, and health and safety.

Broad Topic Areas Being Considered by Planning Committee Percent of Respondents
Human resources 99
Facilities 88
IT support 86
Supply chain 69
Other 44
Elements of Preparedness Plans

The survey broke down the broad topic area of “Human Resources” into seven dimensions and then asked about actions being undertaken in each one. The dimension being addressed by the most employers is employee communications. Ninety-four percent of the 116 organizations developing plans have taken or intend to take specific actions to keep employees informed about the threat and the organization’s response. HR policies, travel and expatriate assignment policies, and illness prevention are also on almost everyone’s to-do list. However, over a third of respondents report no planning for how a pandemic would affect the HR function’s ability to meet its obligations.

Plan Topics Percent Addressing
Communications 94
Human resources policies 91
Travel and expatriate assignment policies 91
Illness prevention and protection 91
Workforce planning and monitoring 78
Employee supports 68
Impact on the HR function 65


In the rest of this section, results reported indicate the percentage of respondents reporting activity in each dimension who have undertaken a specific policy or practice: that is, the percentage reported is based on n for each dimension, since not all 116 participants are active in each dimension.

Human Resources Policies

Effort on HR policies in most companies has been directed to those that affect deployment and utilization of the existing workforce, for example, telecommuting1, shutting down facilities, and time-off policies. Less attention has been paid to supplementing the workforce by streamlining the hiring process, rehiring retirees, or changing rules regarding part-time work, contingent workers, or overtime. The results don’t tell us the reason less attention has been paid to this area; perhaps existing policies are deemed sufficient for the purpose.

HR Policies Being Developed or Revised: Top 6 Percent of Respondents
Determining when offices or facilities will shut down 85
Telecommuting (who can telecommute) 83
Time off (for illness, care for family members in the event of school closings, quarantines, family illness, etc.) 82
Telecommuting (what physical and technical support the company can give to staff) 76
Forced time off (e.g., upon exposure or if displaying symptoms) 76
Return from absence (e.g., medical release) 73
Employee Communications

The most common communications efforts have to do with setting up a centralized communications team and putting together basic information for employees about the possibility of a pandemic, what the company is doing to prepare, and what individuals should be doing to protect themselves and their families. However, emergency procedures and policies are being distributed to employees by only 46 percent of participating employers. In their comments, several respondents worried about the difficulty in balancing the timing and content of communications so that employees were given the information they need but were not unduly alarmed.

Local Customization

Fewer than half the respondents are setting up communications teams at local levels of the organization, but most have developed or are developing a procedure for issuing pandemic-related communications to employees.

Larger companies and those headquartered in North America are more apt to adapt communications to the culture and languages of their employees in various locations. North American and larger companies are also more likely to be in touch with agencies at all levels of government and with local sources of information.


Half of respondents are planning for alternative forms of communication to reach their employees, including pod casts, e-mail, phone chains, radio and TV stations, and Web site. A smaller number, more commonly in the United States and companies with over 50,000 employees, are setting up call centers that employees will be able to access for information.

Employee Supports

Two-thirds of respondents will provide some form of extra support for employees in the case of a flu pandemic. Seventy-six percent of these employers will offer employee assistance programs aimed specifically at helping employees deal with the crisis. This item was cited more frequently by American companies than European (84% vs. 59%, respectively). The second most common type of support, transportation for employees in case of transit difficulties or fuel shortages, is planned by 39 percent. Only a few plan to provide employees with additional remuneration in the form of direct financial aid, enhanced severance for those laid off due to a pandemic, or enhanced benefits for part-time and/or temporary employees.

Workforce Planning and Monitoring

Of the 78 percent of those who responded to the workforce planning section of the survey, most have conducted or will conduct an analysis of essential and nonessential functions in the organization. The most common way organizations plan to deal with labor shortages is to shift responsibilities to other employees (60%), which is followed by shifting responsibilities to other offices (57%). Not surprisingly, the first strategy is more prevalent among manufacturing firms where operations are less portable, while moving offices is more often an option for service organizations.2

One area of concern indicated by the survey results is how companies will cope if key employees are incapacitated. Only a minority report making replacement plans.

Replacement Planning Activities Percent of Respondents
Created backup plans to temporarily replace incapacitated leaders 42
Developed sources for contingent employees with needed skills 37
Reviewed existing succession plans to ensure leadership is identified 37
Created replacement plans for critical positions below the level covered by succession plans 35
Prevention and Protection

Most participants are developing protocols for behaviors that will minimize the spread of the flu (e.g., holding meetings via conference call, using instant messaging, refraining from shaking hands). Most are also making plans to acquire safety and health supplies in case of shortages, but those stockpiling supplies are in the minority. Also in the minority are employers planning to provide vaccinations for employees, although half are evaluating health care services in their various locations and planning improvements as needed.

Impact on the HR Function

This is the area receiving least attention from employers responding to the survey. Sixty-five percent indicated that they are doing at least one of the items listed under this dimension. The most common issue, being addressed by 79 percent of those taking some action in this area, is consideration of the legal implications of a pandemic. Fifty-seven percent are also considering the elimination of nonessential HR activities and how they would staff the function in an emergency. Only a third are planning for disruption to outsourced HR processes.


While it’s not possible to extrapolate from this survey to the employer universe as a whole, the results do suggest that a good portion of it is very aware of the risks of a flu pandemic and are taking proactive steps to prepare. While this survey focused primarily on the HR-related aspects of those plans, respondents noted in their comments that they are also focused on how their organizations will continue to meet their commitments to their customers and communities. The results suggest that certain areas may deserve more attention than has so far been paid, in particular:


  1. Some respondents warned in their comments that, in addition to planning for capacity of internal telecommunications systems and equipment, thought should be given to what happens if the external communications infrastructure fails.
  2. It is interesting to note that fewer not-for-profit employers are planning to shift responsibilities to other employees. One might speculate that these nonprofits have proportionately smaller staffs and so have less flexibility, except they were no more likely than other employers to cite the leanness of their staff as a cause for concern. It may also be that staff in not-for-profits tends to be more dispersed, with a few people in each location, making it more difficult to hand off duties to coworkers.


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