Beware of COVID-19 Return-to-Work Reputational Risks

Engineer with Protective Mask
July 02, 2020

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.
If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
~Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Mark Cuban is the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and appears on ABC’s reality TV series “Shark Tank”. He’s involved in many other businesses also.

Cuban is very assertive. He even briefly considered running for president. He has given many tips during his successful career. One in particular struck me. It was in March, just as lockdowns were going into effect globally because of COVID-19.

On March 25, Cuban was asked on CNBC “When is it safe to send people back to work?”. Here’s his full answer (highlight added separately):

“When you deal with imperfect information, you make imperfect decisions, and there’s no reason to rush this. I’d rather err on the side of caution. I’m not gonna tell people to go to work when I’m uncertain. Not only is it a safety issue, it’s a business issue. How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company.”

Let’s fast-forward to a more recent time…just last week to be precise.

A June 24 article in The Guardian says that North Rhine-Westphalia’s Gütersloh district in Germany, with a population of over 360,000, had to reimpose a lockdown after more than 1,700 employees at the Tönnies abattoir and meat processing plant were tested positive for COVID-19.

The article explains the frustration and anger of the local people towards the return to a lockdown. Vacation plans may get cancelled, and some owners have to temporarily close their businesses again.

But the anger directed at government officials pales in comparison to the anger directed at Tönnies, the company whose workers were tested positive, which prompted the lockdown.

There have been calls to hold the CEO of Tönnies accountable for the coronavirus outbreak. Health inspectors believe that the company failed to follow physical distancing and hygiene rules, according to the article.

In addition, Tönnies is reported to have initially resisted calls to hand over contact details for its workers, allegedly hampering the track-and-trace effort, the article says. The CEO has admitted mistakes and pledged to change the company.

When I read the article, I couldn’t help but think about what Mark Cuban said in March.

Many lockdowns have ended and we’re seeing a gradual return to work. If your organization is also resuming or ramping up operations, it’s important to do it in a way that protects employee health and prevents harm to your corporate reputation or brand image.

The best way to reduce reputational risks is by ensuring that there is a safe return to work by following guidelines, such as OSHA’s Guidance on Returning to Work.

But viruses are not predictable, which is why you should also have a plan to manage potential reputational issues in case there’s an outbreak of infections at one of your facilities.

There are four items to consider:

1) Document All Protective Measures

Document thoroughly all the measures taken to keep your employees safe and healthy. For example, describe how you’re: 1) enforcing physical distancing, 2) providing hand sanitizers, 3) encouraging hand-washing or other hygiene practices, 4) identifying and isolating infected employees, etc.

This is important because, despite all your efforts, there can still be an outbreak due to circumstances beyond your control. For example, an employee gets unknowingly infected outside of the workplace (e.g. in a restaurant). He’s asymptomatic and then infects another employee when they socialize outside of the workplace. In such a situation, your organization may not be entirely at fault if the second employee gets sick.

By documenting all measures taken, you can show that you have been acting responsibly regarding the safety and health of your employees, and that COVID-19 infections were due to factors beyond your control. This will protect your reputation.

2) Be Open and Transparent

The Watergate scandal of 1972-1974 in the U.S., which forced President Nixon to resign, highlighted a valuable lesson: sometimes the cover-up can be worse than the crime. A wrongdoing is already bad by itself. But when the perpetrator tries to cover-up what happened, it just makes matters worse.

It’s the same with COVID-19. If some employees get infected and there’s an outbreak at one of your facilities, be sure to be fully transparent, honest, and upfront on day one. Don’t stall, delay, or put out vague statements. Admit mistakes and cooperate completely with government and health authorities right away.

The public and your customers will appreciate your openness, which will not only protect your reputation, but even enhance it in the long-term.

3) Develop a Communication Plan

Develop a plan to execute in the event of an outbreak at one of your facilities, to mitigate potential reputational risks. The plan should answer the following key questions:

  • What communication channels will be used to explain your response to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases? Examples include social media, press releases, interviews, etc.
  • Who will be the spokesperson, i.e. the face and the voice of the company? Since COVID-19 is a critical issue globally, it’s better to have a high-level executive in front of the cameras or to answer questions, such as the CEO or COO.
  • Who are the key stakeholders? The general public is the main audience, but you may also want tailored and direct communications with customers, suppliers, employees, investors, market analysts (if your company is publicly traded), and business partners.

Finally, consider testing your communication plan. Run through a scenario where an outbreak of COVID-19 cases has occurred at your company, and simulate the steps that would be taken.

4) Be Proactive and Compassionate

An outbreak of COVID-19 cases at your company would be bad. But not taking good care of your sick employees would damage your reputation even more.

If you experience coronavirus infections, take proactive steps to help and support your employees. Not only is it the ethical thing to do, but it will also show the world that your organization is compassionate, which will help to reduce reputational risks.

In the Tönnies case, the company paid for the mass-testing conducted by the authorities. It may not be enough to reverse entirely the reputational damage suffered by the company, but it will help.

Here’s what you should consider doing if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak at one of your facilities:

  • Pay for tests conducted by authorities if your company is responsible for the outbreak.
  • Continue paying salaries of employees while the facility where infections took place is closed.
  • Continue covering medical expenses and providing health insurance to employees while the facility is closed, if there is no universal health care in your state or country.
  • Provide psychological assistance to employees to safeguard their mental health.

As your company resumes or ramps up operations, be sure to manage not only health and safety risks associated to COVID-19, but also reputational risks that may arise in case there’s an outbreak at any of your sites.

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Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader - Wolters Kluwer | Enablon