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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Inspires Us to be More Ethical at Work and in Life

employees having a meeting

employees having a meeting

Ann Skeet

This article was originally published in MarketWatch on March 27, 2020. Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing the world as we know it. Make no mistake about it, as sure as this is a health crisis, it is also a crisis of ethics. Here are some of the proactive decisions many of the best business leaders are making now that ideally will continue to guide them after the coronavirus crisis subsides: 

1. Maslow matters: Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is as helpful in business as it is in understanding human security, as I observed following the Wells Fargo false-account sales scandal.

Put simply, to contribute productively, people need their basic needs met. Businesses are not often asked to directly ensure the physical safety, food, and shelter needs of their employees. But they do in times of natural disasters and pandemics. Employers are acknowledging the uncertainty we all face now, while and trying to ease the daily lives of employees.  I suspect these changes will be remembered fondly in the workforce. The relationship between employee and employer has eroded, but it has never been more critical to business success.

2. Accurate information is power: Journalists, educators, and legislators have been pushing for higher accuracy standards.  Debate has raged about whether to rein in social media platforms, and companies are being asked to validate the information sources on their platforms.  Important bellwethers in this space are occurring on websites ranging from Apple AAPL, -4.14% to Pinterest PINS, -1.71% . 

Apple is “evaluating apps critically to ensure data sources are reputable and that developers presenting these apps are from recognized entities such as government organizations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions” — all in the name of being a “credible news source” in the midst of the outbreak. Pinterest has indicated it will direct users only to valid health care sites.  When we are not in a global crisis, validity and credibility should still be standards. 

3. Special services for special customers: Customer loyalty programs treat some customers as more equal than others. In this pandemic, businesses are finding other ways to add value. Many grocers, for example, have instituted early shopping hours for senior citizens, who are considered most vulnerable to COVID-19.  Perhaps stores could find ways to serve seniors with special care after this virus fades.

4. Healthcare for all: Companies across the U.S. are re-evaluating health-care policies to protect hourly workers. What if they did so without a crisis? Companies with health benefits for all employees are better positioned to respond in times of great need. They also can focus on their customers more fully and retain employees more easily. This will still be true when we return to typical routines.

5. Provide emotional support for challenging jobs: Facebook FB, -4.01% is asking its content moderators to come into the office, even though many other employees are working from home. Facebook recognizes the unique toll this job takes on employees and wants to provide support for them in the workplace. The company may also be exposed to other liabilities if such work is done from home. Are there other places employees would benefit from such support? A new generation of U.S. workers expects mental health support at work. 

6. Respect for educators: A well-trained, resilient workforce is something all businesses need. It has been heartening to see the tweets from parents, struggling to home-school children, now extolling the value of great teachers. Let’s not forget that when children return to school.

7. Avoid information overload: People want quality, useful information.  That was true even before the coronavirus outbreak and it will be true when it is over. As a colleague harrumphed the other day, “Why should I care what Brooks Brothers is doing about COVID-19?” He’s not exactly in a frame of mind to go clothes shopping. Not every business needs to be communicating with customers now, and some are actually eroding their relationships with them by needlessly choking the flow of legitimate, potentially life-saving information. 

8. Tolerance for flexible work schedules: It’s good that we’re all learning how to share our desktops on Zoom ZM, +7.47% now that it’s a business imperative. But it’s even better that we are laughing when the dog barks or our child interrupts because many of us are in this shelter-in-place pickle together. Wouldn’t it be great if this empathy lasted longer than a virus incubation period?

9. Intolerance for violations of trust: Customers are paying attention to the small type in websites’ privacy and use policies now that their home is their office. Even before COVID-19, trust in leadership was at an all-time low, and it’s even lower now. Sure, Zoom offers flexibility, but it also uses surveillance features and acknowledges it might sell your personal data. 

10. Planning ahead: Emergency preparedness is not sexy and, even done exceptionally well, gets no one promoted. But anyone in an executive or leadership role of any kind is obligated to make sure this gets done. 

Employees and customers now want more of what they have always wanted from businesses: Dignity and respect — to be seen as something other than a means to an end; to be treated justly, bearing a fair share of risks and harms in the marketplace, equal or greater to the benefits they receive.

None of this is new. But the responsiveness of many companies to these desires is. Had these measures been in place already, as a normal course of improving businesses, shareholders certainly would be in a better position. Let this crisis be a lesson: What’s good for people is good for business.


Mar 27, 2020

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