A false rumor about an Austin tech worker with coronavirus keeps spreading, and it shows a big challenge facing modern companies when information moves at viral speed

  • While some companies have told their employees flat-out about cases of coronavirus among co-workers, other companies are battling rumors about employees getting sick that are not true.
  • IBM, for instance, has been trying to reassure its employees that no employee in its Austin offices was sick with the illness.
  • Microsoft has been trying to calm employees worried about the illness given that cases have been reported in the country where it is based.
  • Communications experts say that companies are faced with a difficult balancing act: the taboo of discussing an employees’ health versus the need to keep their employees calm, reassured, or, in some cases, protected.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For several days, a false rumor that an IBM employee in Austin, Tex. is suffering from the coronavirus has ricocheted throughout the company. 

As the rumor spread and took on a life of its own — there were claims that IBM hosted a group of Chinese nationals, one of them sick, right before the travel ban — IBM executives at the Austin office posted on internal Slack channels assuring employees that the rumor was false.

“There’s no indication at this time that any IBMer in Austin has contracted the COVID-19 virus,” an IBM spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider. 

In fact, the CDC has not reported any confirmed case of the virus in Austin, although Austin’s health department has said that a few people in the area have been tested. 

Yet, even after these reassurances, some Austin employees still believe that someone from the office was confirmed ill with the virus, one told us.

Other companies have confirmed that one or more of their employees have been infected with coronavirus including Amazon, Google and Nike, with all of those cases involved employees who worked at locations outside of the United States. But F5 Networks shut down its 44-story tower in downtown Seattle after learning an employee had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus, even though the employee tested negative, the company said.

Meanwhile, other organizations, like the East Alabama Medical Center, have been forced to issue denials about cases of the coronavirus, thanks to rumors circulating on social media.

The incidents show just how challenging it is for companies to communicate effectively with their employees amid a frightening and still-developing health crisis. And in a modern workplace bristling with messaging apps and social media tools, the viral speed of information — and misinformation — has left companies scrambling to a get a grip on the situation.

Reassurance vs. cold, hard truths

Microsoft’s head of HR, Kathleen Hogan, for instance, sent an email to employees on February 2, stating, “I am grateful that no Microsoft employee has been diagnosed with coronavirus at this time.” She also told employees to consult with their manager about business travel, assured employees that Microsoft was staying informed on the matter and pointed them to a webpage where they could get info on how to stay healthy.

And as we previously reported, on Monday Microsoft Executive Vice President Kurt DelBene frustrated some employees when he doubled down on the same travel policy of having each individual employee consult with their manager rather than suspending all non-essential business travel as other companies are doing.

DelBene’s email did not flat-out confirm that no Microsoft employees had been confirmed ill, but did imply so by saying “Our thoughts continue to be with employees that have been impacted with quarantines and other restrictions in China and other impacted regions.”

Employees in King County, home to Microsoft’s headquarters, have reason to be concerned. Five deaths from people inflicted from the virus have occured in that county out of the six overall in the state. Some employees worry that the company isn’t doing enough to protect them, two of them told Business Insider’s Ashley Stewart.

The company says it is communicating regularly with its 144,000 full-time employees worldwide and reassuring them by focusing on the facts.

“We continue to work closely with health authorities and experts to provide our employees with fact-based, scientific-led information and guidance. We have established regular communication with our employees, providing relevant guidance and information in a timely manner. This ranges from all-company emails, to localized communications at the country-level. Additionally, we have established a dedicated page for all employees on our corporate intranet that provides the very latest information and guidance,” says Microsoft vice president of communications Frank Shaw.

Safety versus privacy

The problem is that companies are in a gray area when it comes to reporting information about employee illnesses. Talking about the health of an employee is taboo. 

“I think there’s a balance between protecting the identify of a sick employee and being transparent with the workforce,” says Greg Hayes, CEO and co-founder of Branch, a venture-backed office furniture startup in NYC, who relies on factories in China and has one full-time employee living in that country.

That employee did not contract the illness, but she was forced by Chinese regulations to remain in her apartment. Hayes opted to share the news of her situation with employees.

He feels that companies have an obligation to “to let your workforce know if someone around them became ill or impacted” while also protecting that employee’s identity.

In a sign of  how fraught the situation has become, corporate law firm Baker Hostetler has established a COVID-19 Employment Issues Taskforce “to help employers navigate the legal implications in the workplace.”

While companies obviously want to be reassuring, communications experts say employees need to be able to trust that they are getting all the facts, especially when they are being inundated so much alarming, and often misleading, info from friends and family and social media.

For stance, James Wright, Global CEO of PR firm Red Havas and chairman of Havas PR Collective has been advising his PR clients to “keep people accurately informed with the most critical details surrounding the outbreak and business implications.” 

This includes telling people about employee exposure to the virus, and communicating any business impact the virus may have to other stakeholders, like investors.

In addition to the facts, he says companies need to take and explain actions they are taking to keep people safe as it pertains to the “local outbreak developments where a business is operating.” 

For instance, his own global workforce has employees in impacted regions and he’s put policies in place just for them. “Our teams in high exposure zones — namely China, Hong Kong and Singapore — are particularly affected and are mostly working from home and will do for some time.”

And during that time, he expects to continue to be in constant communication with all impacted parties. “As communicators it’s our role to provide clear, transparent and actionable advice, both to employees and to the public.”

Are you an insider with insight to share? Contact Julie Bort on encrypted chat app Signal at (970) 430-6112 using a non-work phone (no PR inquiries, please), or email at jbort@businessinsider.com. Open DMs on Twitter @Julie188. 

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