Around the world, governments and regulators have recognized the need to unburden businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, relaxing certain rules and expectations in recognition of the unprecedented challenges businesses and their workforces now face.
This should not be taken as free reign to ignore the law or engage in unethical conduct. Otherwise, you risk adding to the current crisis by creating one of your own making. Once business returns to normal, we expect organizations will be held liable for their regulatory and compliance failures.
The need to practice compliance and ethical behavior today is more important than ever; regulators will seek to hold accountable businesses that take unfair advantage of this dire situation, and the reputational harm associated with an investigation into such behavior would be catastrophic for your business as we emerge from this crisis.
Luckily, there is much your business leaders, compliance teams, and HR departments can do to help mitigate any further fallout from the pandemic.
Going Back to Basics
The uncertain impact of COVID-19, coupled with the constant news coverage and potential health threat, is undoubtedly creating anxiety within your workforce. Add to this the fact that members of your workforce are now juggling a full-time job from home (potentially from a makeshift office), waiting in line for groceries, home-schooling their children, ensuring their elderly parents are healthy and complying with quarantine mandates, and frequently cleaning their homes to prevent transmission of the virus, thereby making the level of stress and anxiety higher than ever. Successful companies will take all possible steps to relieve their employees’ stress and anxiety during this time.
It may seem obvious, but communication is your best friend. While it is easy to rely on bulk e-mail reminders and communications, it is critical for HR and management to touch base with employees directly whenever possible.
Consider scheduling Q&A discussions via Teams, WebEx, Skype, or Zoom with company leadership to present key messages and answer frequently asked questions. Ensure line managers are having direct contact with their direct reports on an individual basis by phone (and, if possible, videoconference) at least weekly; encourage them to check in on employees’ personal well-being, not just whether they are getting their jobs done from home.
Communicate to your workforce that their health, safety, and families’ needs come first, and remind them of all available resources and company benefits, such as employee assistance programs, emergency child or elder care, or financial support for those facing any economic hardship.
Of course, when communicating with their reports, managers will have no choice but to address the elephant in the room: Are their jobs safe? Will they be expected to take unpaid furloughs? Will they lose their health insurance if laid off? HR must provide accurate, up-to-date talking points to managers so they can keep the workforce informed, or else the company will lose the trust and faith of its most important asset: its employees.
When communicating with employees, ensure that an exemplary tone is used in any messaging. A strong and ethical tone from the top will help exemplify integrity and ethical conduct and resonate throughout your workforce.
Core Values and Code of Ethics
It is during a crisis that your core values, code of ethics, and corporate culture should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. It is vital that at this time, you remind employees that core values such as respect, ethical behavior, and integrity remain in full force. Ensure that any corporate messaging being issued, and policies implemented, remain consistent with the organization’s core values and code of ethics. Now is not the time for inconsistent messaging.
Consider issuing specific reminders of your company’s values and relevant statements from the code of ethics, such as any nondiscrimination principles that make clear it is not appropriate to single out, blame, or disparage any race, nationality, or ethnicity as a cause of the current pandemic. Instead, message to employees that “we are all in this together” and should remain united.
Importantly, ensure employees adhere to your code of conduct. Remind them they should not engage in opportunistic, predatory, and potentially illegal activities such as price gouging, price inflation, or theft of in-demand goods your company purchases or sells.
Reevaluate Performance Metrics
The unemployment numbers announced in the United States in the last few weeks are staggering. A large number of your employees (or their partners) will be severely impacted by the disruptions—layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs, elimination of bonuses, or reduction in commissions. Each of your employees has bills to pay and mouths to feed.
There is a very real risk that corners will be cut to try to hit sales targets. With social distancing measures as they are, interaction with new and existing clients is proving difficult; at the end of the day, clients may be lost.
You should consider adjusting key performance indicators (KPIs) for the period to relieve pressure associated with meeting performance targets. This will help minimize any risk of resorting to noncompliant behavior to meet these.
These are just some measures employers, compliance, and HR teams can take to ensure staff remains compliant in all aspects of your business. This is also an opportunity to review your existing policies and procedures to ensure they are adequate in the midst of this global crisis.
Most importantly, you should practice what you preach. Compliance is about more than just policies, procedures, and rules—it is also about ethics, integrity, and doing the right thing. Reach out, and keep your ear to the ground to help identify those who may be struggling or in need of additional support during this tough time. Without doing so, you risk fighting another crisis just as this crisis begins to ease.
Angela Crawford and Lila Acharya, are partners at compliance and investigations boutique law firm Crawford & Acharya.