How is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic different from the 2018 Spanish Flu epidemic? How
has it impacted firm’s integrity and responsibilities to stakeholders?
The Spanish Flu infected about one-third of the world’s population and killed about
675,000 Americans. People were asked to wear masks, and like in 2020, schools, theatres,
and businesses were closed for some time. What has changed is the medical knowledge,
technology, and advanced communication and global connectedness of the world. Polio
vaccine tests started in 1935, and a vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk and licensed
to the public in 1955. Today, we have the capability to develop vaccines in 1–2 years.
In addition, our communication systems have the ability to shift social and work environments
to virtual interaction. For example, Zappos transitioned its Las Vegas, Nevada, staff
to remote work across all departments and provided instructional videos to teach team
members how to set up a home office.
The current pandemic has provided an opportunity for firms to contribute to helping
both employees and the public by socially responsible actions and conducting business
virtually and online. Apple Inc. donated millions of dollars in personal protective
equipment (PPE) and other support to both the U.S. and China. Many other businesses
‘stepped up’ by making masks, hand sanitizer, or ventilators to support the health
care community and patients. Budweiser produced and distributed more than 500,000
bottles of hand sanitizer. Others—such as Wendy’s, Dunkin’, and Taco John’s—provided
free food to health care workers and first responders, those at higher risk due to
operating on the front line and individuals in need.
How has business ethics changed during the pandemic? What will be the long-term effect
Business ethics involves and affects every employee in an organization, while social
responsibility decisions about how to make a positive impact are often made by top
management. The COVID-19 pandemic has created many new ethical issues. Ethics has
become more important to navigate the risks associated with health, safety, and privacy.
It has become the responsibility of each employee to be accountable and comply with
policies to protect one another and customers. Wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet
of distance requires discipline and respect. Monitoring employees working from home
creates privacy issues just as tracking COVID-19 contacts using smartphones can create
In a distributive workforce, creating and maintaining an ethical organizational culture
will become increasingly challenging. In an organization, there is proximal and supervisory
oversight and interaction. What will this ‘look like’ in our evolving and transforming
There will be long term changes in the importance of responsible and authentic care
for both employees and customers. The CEO of Yum! Brands, the company behind KFC,
Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, among others, gave up his 2020 salary to fund bonuses for
general managers as well as an employee medical relief fund to support franchise restaurant
workers and corporate employees with a COVID-19 diagnosis or for those caring for
an individual suffering from COVID-19. Companies such as Hormel, Walmart, and Kroger
increased bonuses at a time when most organizations were eliminating employees. The
way companies treat employees during the COVID-19 pandemic stands to define those
organizations for years to come.
This is an opportunity for leading brands to make a difference in their communities
by providing products that allow for the ability to live and work from home. Online
retailers such as Amazon have strengthened their relationship with customers by supporting
the new duality of home life. Daily downloads of the Zoom videoconferencing platform
increased more than 30 times year-over-year with total users reaching more than 200
The pandemic has created many ethical challenges. In the education arena, how do you
balance health and safety versus educational needs versus economic viability? Businesses
have had conflictual challenges involving when to open, whether to open, and when
to go out of business. Big box stores and online retailers have fared much better
during the pandemic than smaller retailers such as restaurants, dry cleaners, and
other service businesses. Retailers with both a brick-and-mortar and an online presence
had an advantage as online-only retailers faced inventory stockouts while brick-and-mortar
retailers could tap into store inventory.
Walmart, Home Depot, Walgreens, etc. were deemed essential and as such had the challenges
of how to protect their workforce from infection and provide a safe shopping environment.
To protect the safety of customers and associates, Home Depot shortened store hours
to allow for more thorough sanitization, limited the number of customers allowed in
the store at one time, installed plexiglass shields to separate customers from employees,
supplied thermometers for team members to perform health checks before their shifts,
and provided face masks and gloves to associates. The company also eliminated major
promotions—no doubt taking a financial hit—to avoid driving unnecessary traffic to
What are the ethical expectations of/responsibilities and consequences of employees
who work from home with varying levels of supervision?
Many employees, not involved in face-to-face service exchanges, moved to working from
home. Two major issues developed that impacted the worker and the firm. Some employees
were unable to carry out their responsibilities due to childcare, the need for in-home
education, and other distractions from attempting to work in a non-office environment.
On the other hand, some employees had a hard time separating work and their personal
lives. These individuals worked long hours and some of these employees felt increasing
pressure to the point of causing mental health issues.
Working from home is becoming the new normal. Before the pandemic, over the last 5
years, there has been a 44 percent increase in working remotely, according to Flexjobs.com.
Now, Google will let employees work from their homes until at least July 2021. Twitter
will allow employees to work from home forever. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman went
as far as to say the bank would likely need less commercial real estate post-pandemic.
Working at home requires boundaries and discipline. Friends and neighbors need to
know that you’re working from home and are not as accessible at non-work times. Double-dipping
is an ethical issue in billing clients by the hour. Though some ethical issues, such
as harassment, bullying, and personal use of organizational resources may actually
decline, the biggest risk is one of the most challenging issues in any organization
and that is time theft. Developing shared organizational values may be harder to develop
as well as the development of ethical leadership skills. Any way you slice it, just
as we have had to learn how to stay e-connected, we now will need to find other ‘e-ways’
to manage and lead through this change and beyond.