Listen, I'm begging you...

Every company has employees it considers "critical" or "key". What if some of yours refused to come to the office during an infectious disease (ID) epidemic, claiming their jobs just weren't worth risking their lives--or the health of their families?

Every company has employees it considers "critical" or "key". What if some of yours refused to come to the office during an infectious disease (ID) epidemic, claiming their jobs just weren't worth risking their lives--or the health of their families?

What would your company offer to get them to come to the office?

Should your company offer hazardous duty incentive pay to "essential" employees? Say, for example, a fixed amount of $100 per day? $200 per day? More?

How much is enough, in your opinion--or in theirs?

$200 per day is a $50,000 annual salary rate--an attractive incentive, but can any company sustain that every day for six to eight weeks (the expected duration of the first wave of an influenza epidemic)? For every "key" employee? In addition to their salaries?

You can be certain that other employees will know if the company is offering some people incentives to come to work. So the definition of "key" or "essential" or "critical" employee must be clear, fair and publicized well in advance, so that any questions about the definition can be sorted out before it is put into effect.

How many people in your company's IT department, for example, should be considered "critical"? If the file server crashed? Or if the e-mail system went down? You can see this will get a bit thorny...

Or should your company offer a performance bonus for coming to work in difficult circumstances? Say, for example, one month of salary, or 10 percent of salary (it's unlikely that an "essential" employee is on an hourly wage)? But wouldn't every employee who comes to work during an epidemic have a right to expect the same bonus?

Your company probably doesn't give performance bonuses for working in severe weather or a power outage. I wouldn't start doing so for an ID epidemic, either.

I've read human resource consultant Mercer's Spring 2006 Avian Flu Pandemic Preparedness Survey Report. They surveyed 450 people in 38 countries including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S.A. Mercer has a Web site devoted to Avian influenza (by which they really mean 'human pandemic influenza', because only birds get bird flu).

Their report says, among other findings, that most companies won't consider adjusting employee compensation:

"...results show that the majority of respondents are unlikely to increase compensation for employees taking on additional responsibilities to maintain business-critical activities. Only 26 percent indicated they would provide an increase in compensation for employees taking on additional responsibilities."

In the U.S., it was 39 percent; in the U.K. and Hong Kong, the rate was just 17 percent.

In my opinion, that's 'whistling past the graveyard'. Companies have just not yet experienced the real impact of a single human point-of-failure.

It seems obvious to me that for functions that only one person knows how to do, or is the only person authorized to do, or is the only one who will do, companies will eventually say, effectively, 'We'll do whatever you ask to get you to do the work. What do we have to do?'

The Mercer Survey Report says companies expect to respond instead by "extending leave (vacation) provisions" and encouraging employees to work "remotely".

Am I missing something? How will more time off get more work done?

And how many business-critical activities can be done "remotely" at your kitchen table, or on the sofa at Starbucks?

In my experience, very few.

It wasn't compensation that employees were talking about during the SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003. It was personal and family safety. It will be in a future epidemic, too.

So I figure a company's inducements to its employees should address personal health and safety fears. For example:

1. Give away small bottles of anhydrous hand disinfectant like candy, in a size that fits in a purse or a briefcase. Washing your hands is the single most effective method for preventing the spread of any infectious disease. Alcohol-based hand disinfectant doesn't require water--or touching the funky faucet handles in the office toilet. Stack them up in the pantry; get the boss to make a show of washing his hands with the stuff.

2. Offer home care, or reimbursement for it. In an epidemic, many people will stay home to care for children when schools are closed, many others to care for sick relatives. They won't want to go anywhere without having responsible caregivers available to stand in for a few hours while they go to the office. If your company could provide caregivers or caretakers, or would reimburse their costs to an employee, I think you'd stand a much better chance of persuading that employee to come to the office.

3. Improved health insurance benefits. In North America, companies are cutting costs by cutting benefits and transferring health costs to employees. Offering enhanced or improved benefits (for doctor visits, for example, or for vaccinations) would get a lot of favorable attention, I imagine. It would probably not be a good idea to offer those enhanced benefits only for the duration of an epidemic...

4. Offer a private car and driver to transport essential employees to and from work. I live in Asia where most employees commute to work on crowded public transportation. A private car--suitably disinfected--would be an attractive incentive.

5. Offer an isolated, disinfected room in which to work at the office, so contact with other people is minimized. The room can be shared by multiple employees if its contact surfaces are thoroughly disinfected between occupants. Just as important as a clean office is a disinfected computer keyboard. It occurs to me that in an infectious disease epidemic, an employee might want to mark or label his or her own keyboard and store it so that only he or she can touch it.

6. "Knobs, handles and buttons": the most common route of transmission for influenza is touch. To inhibit the spread of disease in an office, the cleaning crew must use alcohol on door knobs, FAX machine keys, copier machine buttons, the coffee-dispenser buttons, faucet handles in the toilet, telephone handsets... you get the idea. Vacuuming the carpet an extra time isn't going to help prevent the spread of infection.

7. Personal protective equipment (PPE): I think it's just silly to buy surgical gowns, nitrile gloves and N-95 masks for most office workers (at least in large quantities), but if that's all it takes to make a frightened employee comfortable, do it.

As to which "key" employees should be offered inducements, it's time to start making your list and checking it twice.