What are the biggest ethical dilemmas facing businesses during the coronavirus pandemic?

For 365 compliance professionals who participated in a Compliance Week survey, nearly half said their top ethical quandary was dealing with employees whose children were home from school and childcare. Ordering employees to come to work despite the risk of contracting the coronavirus was next (26 percent), followed by having to lay off or furlough workers. More than one in four respondents (28 percent) said they faced no ethical dilemma.

Conducted from March 24-26, the survey captured a moment in time for the coronavirus pandemic, which began in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Over those three days, 130,000 new coronavirus cases were discovered worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The crisis was ebbing in China and South Korea, in full force in Italy, Iran, and Spain, and beginning to overwhelm the healthcare system of New York City. Hot spots were also developing elsewhere in the United States.

Christopher Michaelson, a professor in the Department of Ethics and Business Law at the University of St. Thomas, said the survey missed the chance to ask about a big ethical dilemma: inequity.

As a general rule, employees who enjoy higher status and better pay are able to work remotely, allowing them to avoid the front lines and shield themselves from infecting themselves and their families, he said. Lower-paid workers—including truck, mail, and delivery drivers, warehouse workers, supermarket employees, nurse’s aides, and others—have to risk exposure to coronavirus every day in order to do their jobs. These lower-paid workers also skew younger, which means they are more likely to be parents of young children.

In the coronavirus pandemic, these jobs are almost as essential as first responders. “A lot of the burden of handling this crisis has been placed on these workers,” he said.

“The compliance and ethics professions are related. If they aren’t thinking about justice and equity, then who is?” he asked.

If companies are asking employees to come to work, they need to take every step possible to minimize infections, compliance professionals said. The employees need adequate protective gear, particularly if they are coming in direct contact with infected people. That can be challenging in a time of extreme shortages in personal protective equipment like masks and face shields.

Schedules can be adjusted, cleaning regimens amplified, and other steps can be taken to reduce the risk of infection for these workers. Companies asking these employees to work in such conditions have an ethical responsibility to do everything they can to protect them, compliance experts said.

Keith Darcy, a compliance consultant with clients like Deloitte and in the oil and gas industry, said compliance officers need to strive to treat all stakeholders equally.

“Don’t subordinate one stakeholder to another,” he said. “Move consciously on how you treat each of your stakeholders. Be proactive in building relationships. Empower your workforce to feel inspired, despite the crisis that’s in front of us.”

There are other ethical thickets to navigate, like how and when to use sick time.

One compliance professional, working for an employer in an “essential industry,” responded in the survey that it has been difficult to ask employees to continue working. The employees come to work because they want to save their sick time for use later in the year.

“Their personal financial situation is difficult, so they want to save paid leave for later in the year and indicate they can’t personally afford to take unpaid leave,” the respondent said. “This has created a negative and emotionally charged environment.”

Some ethical dilemmas are unique to individual industries. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical industry, for which important research—maybe even finding a vaccine for the coronavirus?—cannot be done remotely.

Fabiana Lacerca-Allen, senior vice president compliance for Aimmune Therapeutics in Brisbane, Calif., said she faced such a dilemma more than a dozen years ago in a similar position at another pharmaceutical company. She was pregnant. Her company was among the leaders in developing a vaccine for the Avian flu and would eventually develop one. The company drew up a list of which employees it considered to be mission critical, putting them first in line to receive the vaccine when it became available, as they were essential to getting the job done and medicine to patients.

“You’re making critical decisions about who gets priority and what is mission critical,” she said.

The tradeoff, however, was these “mission critical” employees were required to live at the office, if necessary. Luckily, no one ever had to live at the office as the pandemic waned, and she gave birth in a hospital.