Coronavirus and the challenge facing business leaders

Everyone talks about social responsibility. As the world scrambles to respond to the Covid-19 threat, now’s the time to turn words into action… 

There’s no telling how people will behave in times of crisis. 

In recent weeks we’ve seen behaviour from across the moral spectrum, from staggering sacrifices for the greater good, to brazen indifference to the lives of others.

Whether we recognise it or not, separately and collectively, we find ourselves in a singular ethical moment. 

That goes for commercial organisations too. While the spotlight is currently on emergency measures to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus and support those most acutely suffering, how individual companies react – in regards to their employees, business partners and the community at large – will live on long after the current emergency.  

“The way large companies respond to this crisis is a defining moment that will be remembered for decades,” says Mark R. Kramer, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.

“Thirty-eight years ago, seven people in Chicago died from taking poisoned Tylenol pills. It was a rare and localized event, but Johnson & Johnson immediately pulled all Tylenol from all stores everywhere, taking a huge loss to avoid even a single additional death.”

“People still talk about that decision. People who weren’t even born at the time are still studying that case in business schools.”

While businesses everywhere are under enormous pressure from external forces, mitigating the human cost of the Covid-19 outbreak should form the backbone of company recovery plans. That means prioritising employee support through the crisis, flexibility in financial matters and ‘big picture’ thinking.   

For those managing work-from-home staff, be flexible, provide the necessary tools for online collaboration and encourage regular virtual face-to-face time with employees so you can ask about their well being and provide coping strategies if needed.

“With workers at home and the fitness centers closed, companies need to redirect their efforts to foster employee well-being,” says Paula Caligiuri, professor of International Business and Strategy at Northeastern University. 

“Companies can help – and some already are – by offering tutorials on mindfulness, webinars on resilience, reminding workers of their employee assistance programs or simply suggesting workers go for a walk.”

“Consistent and clear communication about health risks, preventative measures and available resources is the best way for company leaders to keep their employees safe and foster well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For those companies facing serious financial losses, laying off staff should be a last resort. There are lots of options for dealing with the impact of Covid-19, including modifying contracts, financial support and more. Find out what’s available here

“What companies do to help their laid-off employees  — above and beyond what is required or expected — will be remembered and repaid in increased loyalty, higher productivity, and a lasting reputational benefit for many years to come,” says Kramer. 

For those staff who are let go, offer as much support as possible. Bring forward any wages outstanding, front up with any required documentation promptly quickly and consider offering to cover expenses for interviews. 

With markets in chaos and supply chains disrupted, maintaining cashflow is a matter of survival for many small businesses. Endeavour wherever possible to pay suppliers, especially small or independent outfits, promptly, or even ahead of schedule if requested. 

While the temptation to cut costs is strong, resist the urge to switch providers to the cheapest market option. Maintaining relationships during the Covid-19 upheaval will make recovery all the quicker for everyone. 

Now is the moment when C-suite executives can make their mark on company culture and the larger mission of the company.  Who in the community needs help? What can the organisation offer? How can the company serve the community right now?

There is the temptation during times of trial to ‘batten down the hatches’, to succumb to fight or flight impulses and to prioritise personal survival over the well-being of the group. It’s these impulses which must be most actively resisted.

“No one expects or requires major companies to take extraordinary measures to help their many stakeholders,” says Kramer, “but the bold and creative steps they take today to deliver immediate assistance will define their legacy tomorrow.”

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