Swine Flu: A Timely Challenge for Managers

Where others see only problems in the swine flu threat, Chris Falkenberg sees opportunities for managerial growth. "Even if the pandemic turns out to be a nonevent, it will focus managers on how to refine their business continuity plans for emergencies," says Falkenberg, a former Secret Service agent and the founder and president of Insite Security, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in risk management.

BusinessWeek's Rebecca Reisner recently spoke with Falkenberg to get his insights into how managers should respond to the flu threat. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

What should managers do to respond to the swine flu threat?

It's time to dust off the business continuity plans that the company already should have in place to deal with crises like transit strikes or natural disasters. Then you can see if those plans are relevant to a flu pandemic.

And what about the businesses that don't have any continuity plans. Where should they begin?

Start thinking about what you would do if people can't come to work because they're ill. What if they're unwilling to travel for business? Unwilling to sit in an office with others? There are work-flow changes when employees work from home. You need to make sure people can communicate if they decide to work at home.

How do you keep employee panic in check?

Offer thoughtful, informed leadership. Managers need to get out front and talk to employees honestly about what the risks are and what they're doing to help. They need to know that swine flu is an illness that responds to antiviral drugs. In the U.S., workers should know that the high population areas at greater risk for an outbreak are the most likely to be well-prepared for an outbreak. People should also know the Centers for Disease Control has a national stockpile with 50 million doses of Tamiflu.

Are any businesses particularly vulnerable to harm if workers stay home?

Time-dependent industries like trading. Any industry that depends on a lot of buying and selling every day, or any business that requires regular short-term interaction between employees daily in order to meet its goals. For that reason, some of the smaller financial services firms stockpile antiviral drugs for the flu.

Where's the safest place to be geographically?

Probably Toronto. After the SARS scare, the city government went into a review process to see how preparedness could be improved in the future

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