How this HR leader navigated SARS, H1N1

Looking to the past may help HR leaders figure out a plan for COVID-19.
By: | March 18, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For Steve Cadigan, who headed HR for Cisco Systems’ Asia region back in the early 2000s, too much about the novel coronavirus now sweeping around the world sounds eerily familiar, even though it offers lessons companies can learn from.

He remembers when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2003-04 first hit. It, too, was a coronavirus. Even though it spread to only 26 countries and killed around 10% of the 8,098 people with confirmed cases, it caused extensive disruption, as companies scrambled to figure out how to respond to such a crisis.

With SARS, Cadigan says, it was a real-time struggle, as it is now, for employers to keep up with the news and figure out what to do about the dangerous epidemic.

“It feels like it’s happening again,” says Cadigan, a speaker, talent strategist and company culture expert with Cadigan Talent Ventures.

In his evaluation, there were two diseases—the illness caused by the coronavirus and the panic. When it came to SARS, the second was the hardest to manage.

“I was under a lot of pressure because my headquarters in San Jose didn’t really appreciate what was going on. They didn’t know how panicked people really were in Asia,” he says.

Some ex-pats had American families living in China who were put into quarantine at hospitals but didn’t speak Mandarin, causing added concern and even terror, he says.

“They were asking me, ‘Hey, what should we do?’ I said, ‘I don’t have direction from headquarters right now … but if you don’t feel safe, you need to leave.’ ”

In short, HR policy was figured out moment to moment, he says.

So, what advice does he have for today’s HR folks, who are facing travel bans, quarantines, school closings, business interruption and more?

The most important step, he says, is to not think only of the immediate challenges but also about how actions taken will be viewed down the line.

“How did your company handle it? Was your company a role model for doing things the right way, supporting people [and] helping them solve whatever their issues are?” he asks. “[Did the company give HR and employees] the freedom to make the right call? Business is going to have to take a backseat.”

Cadigan said lessons learned from SARS went into approaches he helped lead when he was vice president of talent at LinkedIn during the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009. One of the keys was to develop very quick emergency-communication protocols.

“It’s an unnatural moment,” Cadigan adds, about both past epidemics and our current situation. “It used to be that customers were No. 1, and now family and health is No. 1, and that’s just not a normal way that we’ve looked at work. So, companies have to try to make that pivot and understand, listen and try to support people as much as possible.”

Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.