Compliance and ethics fails during the coronavirus pandemic have done more than hurt companies’ images. They’ve cost lives.
Some companies dealing with shutdowns, disruptions, sickness, and shortages rose to the occasion. But many have stumbled, misjudged the risks, did not have a business continuity plan, or fumbled its implementation. Here are seven of the worst compliance and ethics fails of the coronavirus pandemic—so far—with (hopefully) some lessons learned:
1. The cruise ship industry did not respond proactively when it needed to
Passengers were not quarantined on ships early enough, and some infectious passengers were allowed to disembark and spread the virus among their communities. The Miami Herald reported that more than 2,700 coronavirus cases were found on 57 cruise ships by April 23, and 74 passengers have died.
Even after Carnival Corp.’s management knew about infections on its Diamond Princess, its failure to take decisive action allowed infection to spread to 700 passengers and crew, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek.
Many of the cruise ship companies defended their response by saying they followed all government and health regulations and adhered to government orders as ships came into port.
“With respect to the cruise industry, what I found fascinating from an ethics and compliance perspective was that the leaders of these organizations were fast to project their own failures onto the regulators and global health agencies,” said Richard Bistrong, CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery, a compliance consultancy. “I think the major failure here was to abandon and abdicate corporate responsibility for passengers and society at large by deflecting to regulatory guidance, which, at the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, was clearly ’trailing guidance’ as opposed to ‘leading guidance.’”
To add insult to injury, several cruise ship companies kept ships at sea for weeks despite a March 14 “No Sail Order” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The order was later extended to July 24. The last cruise ship returned to port April 24, according to CNN. Some ships had a hard time finding ports that would accept them.
“The public at large isn’t always focused on how organizations respond to a crisis in the context of regulatory guidance; rather, our view of their decisions is shaped by how they responded with respect to the impact on human safety and welfare. That’s what we remember after the crisis,” Bistrong said.
2. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been nearly impossible to secure
Case in point: In March, the state of Massachusetts ordered 1.2 million N95 masks from China for its hospitals and front-line workers but had a problem: How would it get them home? Enter New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who sent the team’s jet to fetch them. State officials began delivering the masks to first responders throughout the state. But many of those same front-line responders complained what they actually received were KN95 masks, which do not filter airborne particles nearly as well as N95 masks.
“This is a complete and utter failure of the current administration,” Keith Darcy, a compliance consultant, said of President Donald Trump and the federal government. “The lack of a central supply stockpile, and well as the failure of using its federal powers to mobilize a mission for PPEs and other necessitates, has left each state to fend for itself, effectively competing with each other for product. It’s nuts, and grossly inefficient. The failure of the federal government to accept any responsibility in this crisis is unfathomable.”
3. Coronavirus infections have plagued essential workplaces
Thousands of essential employees have contracted coronavirus at work, including front-line emergency personnel like doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and more. But other employees who may not have been adequately protected from infection—workers in grocery stores, nursing homes, warehouses, and slaughterhouses—also contracted coronavirus from customers and co-workers. Many have died.
According to the Washington Post, thousands of employees have filed complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over inadequate workplace protections.
The meat industry in particular has been hard hit, with numerous plants being shut down after infections spread quickly, according to CNN. Amazon employees have complained bitterly about not receiving adequate PPE in warehouses, according to a former Amazon Web Services vice president who resigned due to what he called ”a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.”
Beyond PPE shortages, another glaring problem “has been very poor communication between employers and their employees,” said Gus Sandstrom, partner with the employment law firm Blank Rome. Employers should explain their current situation with PPE as clearly and often as possible, he said. That includes informing employees when PPE will be available and what steps they can take in the meantime to protect themselves.
“Employees want to know their company is trying to take care of them,” Sandstrom said. “In most situations, employees are willing to give employers the benefit of the doubt.”
Even employers struggling to obtain enough PPE can show they care for employees by doing everything possible to reduce transmission by cleaning workspaces; spacing employees at least six feet apart; staggering work start and stop times to reduce crowding; taking temperatures of employees before work, sending anyone home who shows symptoms of coronavirus; and notifying affected employees if one of their co-workers falls ill, Sandstrom said.
4. Public companies have been excoriated for taking coronavirus loans
More than 200 publicly traded companies used their connections with large banks—and in many cases, skirted the 500-employee head count limit by applying via subsidiaries—to push to the front of the line for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. When $349 billion in low-interest, forgivable federal loans disappeared in less than two weeks, small businesses left waiting cried foul.
Faced with public shaming, more than a dozen large companies, including the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, returned the loans. U.S. Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin said companies could face criminal penalties for misrepresenting themselves on their applications.
While large public companies may not have violated the letter of the law, they certain trampled on its spirit, said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at Santa Clara (Calif.) University.
“It speaks to how desperate even publicly traded companies are right now,” Skeet said. “But it’s prudent, it’s responsible, to think about, ‘Was that capital meant for me? Or am I taking capital from organizations that can really use it to survive long term?’”
Companies with strong values and mission statements are likely in much better shape during this pandemic, she said. Having strong corporate culture helps employees make better decisions.
“This is the time when companies need to be leaning on their mission, purpose, value, and roots,” she said.
5. Price gouging has been commonplace on online marketplaces
Hand sanitizer and PPE have been sold for outrageously inflated prices on Amazon, Facebook, Craigslist, eBay, and Walmart online marketplaces, according to a letter written by attorneys general from 33 states. Individual attorneys general in Connecticut, Michigan, and Florida have accused third-party sellers of price gouging on Amazon and other online platforms.
Amazon responded by saying it has removed 3,900 sellers from its platforms and has been continuously monitoring its marketplace for price gouging.
The more sophisticated the online marketplace, the more tools it should wield to weed out and remove price gougers. Use of artificial intelligence tools, combined with zealous response to consumer complaints, should be the norm for as long as the pandemic lasts.
Darcy said companies understand that price gouging on their platforms could damage their brand.
“I know one major consumer products company that is monitoring for that very carefully,” he said. “They realize that their reputation is at stake.”
6. Ticket refund policies have left fans in limbo
Both Live Nation and Major League Baseball (MLB) struggled to clarify ticket refund policies for fans who bought tickets to events that were indefinitely postponed, according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
In both cases, fans were left with no way to obtain refunds because the events were not canceled outright (tickets to canceled events are automatically refunded). Live Nation eventually updated its refund policy to allow ticketholders to apply for a refund 60 days after an event was supposed to be held. MLB had a longtime policy that tickets for postponed games were not refunded, reflective of its rainout policy. But the league began issuing refunds recently when it became clear that many early season games will never be played.
“This isn’t a new issue,” said Darcy, who noted that ticket sellers should have policies in place to refund tickets for indefinitely postponed events. “The ultimate risk is loss of reputation and loss of a client base. Reputation risk today is at least as great as strategic, operating, and financial risk. Given news that goes viral, companies that are not sensitive to the needs of their clients can be doomed.”
7. The EPA’s relaxed enforcement
In March, under pressure from the oil and gas industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a temporary policy to not seek penalties for noncompliance with “routine monitoring and reporting violations” during the pandemic.
The EPA announcement does not give companies a license to cut corners, said Bistrong. But the indefinite length of the enforcement pause has some, including a group of House Democrats, fearing the long-term effects lax controls might have on the environment.
“While regulatory guidance and releases might be confusing to compliance teams, that does not have to translate to diluting the importance of responsible business practices to commercial and operational teams,” Bistrong said. Companies should document any deviations from the norm and contact regulators for guidance. The message throughout an organization, from the top on down, should be to hold standards high despite the crisis, “so when the crisis passes, an organization does not have a regulatory lapse that will far outlive the virus itself,” he said.