Ethics and Trust Needed as Businesses Physically Reopen

June 1, 2020 LRN Corporation

A recent article by partners at Bain & Co. on how businesses can reopen and prepare for life during and after COVID-19 highlights how important ethics and trust will be in determining the success of failure of each company’s attempt.


The article enumerated steps companies can take to protect individual employees, particularly those on the front lines. While many of these steps are nearly common sense, such as physical distancing, hygiene and testing, challenges will run deeper and have more nuanced implications, many of them legal and ethical.


The article said screening and testing workers will be essential, and most workers will likely find that first line of defense comforting. But it raises complex privacy issues. Among them: Who gets notified of a positive result? How does the privacy right of an employee who tests positive get balanced against the rights of other employees to know the cause and degree of their potential exposure?


“While the coronavirus discriminates among its victims, there are no employment laws that allow the same in the name of safety,” Bain said. For instance, older men going back to their jobs may be at greater risk than, say, young women. 


The virus has given rise to a new category of recovered employees who could be more immune and at less risk than coworkers. In addition, screening customers implies they’ll be treated differently, and perhaps denied service, if they seem to have COVID-19 symptoms. 


“Lawmakers are unlikely to move quickly enough to clear up the thorny questions that will arise,” the article stated. 


What’s the solution? Companies themselves will have to work through these issues with their employees and unions, and they will all need fast and risk-weighted support from the companies’ generals counsel, chief human resources officers, and chief ethics and compliance officers.


Returning to work is a moment of truth and trust, Bain said. For employees, the trust begins with being safe and feeling safe. This will be true for customers in workplaces that involve their presence. Most important, “the safety of workers and the future of the business requires that some rules be strictly enforced from the top down, with no exceptions, for the foreseeable future.”


While leaders must be exemplars of the rules and evolved set of ethics, they should, as soon as practical, begin empowering their frontline managers to handle local issues as they come up. 


“This requires that workers get the training and psychological support they need to embrace, maintain and self-enforce safe behavior at all times,” the article said. It recommends companies build “feedback loops” to rapidly deliver practices created at the front lines of one workplace to the rest of the company. “These feedback loops also demonstrate to employees that they are heard and play a critical role in reducing risk for their fellow workers.”


The same overall theme–the importance of cultures of affirmative conduct, trust and ethics in the recovery from pandemic-inflicted damage–comes through in LRN’s recent study on ethics and ethics and compliance programs, the 2020 Ethics & Compliance Program Effectiveness Report: Confronting the Root Causes of Misconduct.

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