In this special edition of the Ask Amii Mailbag, executive coach and former Chief Compliance Officer Amii Barnard-Bahn addresses tackling the unchartered territory of the coronavirus pandemic. A regular Compliance Week contributor, Amii answers member questions on some of the grayer areas compliance officers face, such as culture, hiring, training, and ethics. Click here to submit your own for inclusion in our next edition.
Q: Like many companies, we are in unprecedented territory with this coronavirus. We’re taking things day by day, piecing together plans as we go. I feel like we need to have some sort of committee that meets daily to discuss this. Do you know of companies that have gone that route? Is there a “best practices” for dealing with a crisis like this one?
Amii: A crisis committee is certainly a best practice for fast-moving crises like COVID-19. Based on last week’s Compliance Week survey, 1/3 of respondents have put a committee in place. Another 56 percent acknowledge that their plan and response to the pandemic changes every day.
Everyone should have a crisis plan that can be applied to various risk scenarios. Key members usually include employee communications, IT, HR, public relations, and legal. Have alias lists (an e-mail list for a group, such as “crisis committee,” “executive management,” or employees in specified geographic locations) and chain-of-command checklists about what information needs to go out to who (e.g. customers, strategic partners). Having a pre-identified team enables you to quickly jump into action so that when a crisis does arise, you have the basics and can start having regular meetings to take action on any special circumstances like having to shift to a work-from-home mode of business.
Whatever the crisis, you will need to make a business operation shift away from standard operating protocols and effectively communicate these changes through various channels. For example, your customer marketing may need to shift from a “sell” mode to one of empathy and compassion—or you risk being tone-deaf to what is happening in the world and alienating customers. If you don’t have a plan in place, make sure you document everything you are doing as you go through it now so that when a similar situation arises (such as a second pandemic wave) you can leverage your previous work.
Q: Our CEO insists on having “a presence” in the office each day (we’re in Chicago) during this pandemic, to pick up the mail, maintain some semblance of continuity I guess. We’re a small company (75 employees) and, realistically, we can all do our jobs from home. Behind the scenes I am pushing for that, but our CEO maintains we need to have a skeleton crew in each day to keep continuity. I argue we are putting employees in danger. What’s “the right thing to do” here?
Amii: You are right to be concerned and wise to be questioning your CEO’s approach. This is an unprecedented time for our generation of leaders, and requiring employees to work in the office when they can perform their work remotely exposes people to an unnecessary health risk. In CW’s survey last week, asking employees to come into the office just to maintain a “presence” was cited as a personal ethical dilemma currently faced by 13 percent of C&E professionals.
Based on the survey, as of March 31, 37 percent of respondents were fully remote and another 36 percent of responding companies were only allowing in-person work that could not be performed at home. If it’s any indication, all of my client companies have closed their offices and are remote at this time.
For guidance, you can look to national, state, and local government mandates to determine those that apply to your company. Your PR or Public Affairs team may pull together a daily news clips summary on a crisis to send to your management team to keep them informed on the latest and the measures that your industry and competitors are taking. Seeing what other leaders/companies are doing may help them make better informed decisions.
My personal opinion: If you can run your business effectively without any employees in the office, I would strongly urge your CEO to do so. When we recover from this crisis, employees will remember and evaluate how and whether their company demonstrated care and concern for their well-being—and failure to do so will negatively impact employee engagement and retention for the long-term. As stated by Mark Cuban recently on CNBC, how employers handle this will “define their brand for decades.”
Q: Should companies have had a “pandemic” plan in place? We made a lot of contingency plans in place (terrorist attack, major fire at our facility, etc.), but nothing for pandemic. We ended up adapting some parts of our other plans on the fly. Do you think we’re alone in not having that kind of plan in place? Right now we’re already having meetings about the “second wave” (very depressing).
Amii: While rare, the impact of a pandemic or biological threat is so great that in 2016, the U.S. National Security Council created what became informally known as the “pandemic playbook” (officially titled, “The Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents”). The playbook was created in response to an inadequate global leadership response during the 2014-2015 spread of Ebola.
Know you are not alone—many companies did not have a plan in place to meet the demands of this crisis. Based on the CW survey, a slight majority (56 percent) of respondents had a plan, while 44 percent did not. And, like you, 76 percent of companies are preparing for a potential second COVID-19 wave, taking actions such as refining their response plan, assembling a crisis team, communication plan, facilitating virtual work-from-home, and cross-training employees. Based on current medical knowledge and predictions, it’s wise to be prepared for the possibility of a second wave.
Survey: Past crises prepared compliance for coronavirus pandemic
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Coronavirus: How prepared can you be for the unknown?