The economic hardships of the prolonged COVID-19 shutdown mean that many organizations feel enormous pressure to resume operations as soon as possible, but besides the obvious health and safety issues involved with re-opening, employers must consider the range of ethical issues that are likely to arise.
Ethics in business matter more than ever because of how easily and quickly employer misconduct can come to light. Without naming names, we can all think of examples of organizations that have engaged in unethical behaviour and been called out online or in public. When this happens, some customers will cut ties, and employees might quit. Even those customers and employees who remain will have their trust shaken.
The pandemic has changed everyone’s lives, but those changes have fallen unequally, and some employees need more flexibility than others if they’re to return to work safely. In some cases, an employee might not be able to return safely at all yet. Employers should strive to be flexible and understanding. The rules that govern workplace interactions and the employer–employee relationship were not written in expectation of a global pandemic like this.
Crises reveal character; it’s easier to behave well when you can take time to think about your decisions, but the pandemic has put everyone under enormous stress. Some decisions have to be made quickly, and short supplies of everything—whether physical resources like hand sanitizer and masks or mental resources like patience and attention—mean that compromises and disappointment are all but guaranteed.
Emergency declarations and changes to employment standards have given employers more power to act quickly and decisively to preserve jobs, but those same powers can just as readily be abused. For example, Ontario has changed the rules around constructive dismissal during the declared emergency, meaning employers can reduce an employee’s hours or pay without triggering a constructive dismissal claim. Some employers will have legitimate reasons to do so, but some will not, and so shouldn’t take advantage of the change just because they can.
One of the best ways to make sure you treat employees ethically is to involve them in discussions about matters that affect them. Ask employees what they’re worried about and solicit suggestions for changes they’d like to see. Your frontline employees likely see problems that you don’t, and might have ideas you’ve never thought of. You don’t have to do everything your employees suggest; naturally, there is information you have that they don’t that affects your options. Consider, too, that if you share some of those constraints up front, you might get more realistic ideas back, and letting employees in on some of the tough realities can relieve some of your burden. Involving employees in the process and taking their feedback seriously builds trust in the workplace, and the more fairly employees feel you treat them, the more likely they are to accept the occasional difficult choice.
Remember that if you were an employee, you’d want your management team to tell you what’s going on, to listen to your questions and complaints, and to take you seriously. Grant your employees the courtesy you would want for yourself and recognize that individual circumstances will mean making exceptions and being flexible.
This pandemic will end, but it hasn’t yet, so even as things superficially return to normal, many people aren’t ready right now. Be the best employer you can be while times are difficult; when circumstances improve, employees will remember, and businesses that behaved ethically will prosper.
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