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Businesses that don’t respond quickly enough to help their employees or take a short-sighted approach risk attracting calls for boycott. The Times columnist Caitlin Moran called for the public to report businesses that were exploiting their workers and praise those who were acting responsibly, so that an extensive public spreadsheet could be created for the public to support or avoid certain businesses “when this is over”. Meanwhile the Labour List is keeping a ‘running total’ of businesses that have treated their workers badly.

For a company facing this crisis, the first move is often the most critical. Next has been listed for ordering its employees to take “unpaid time off” or to use their holiday days if they wanted to self-isolate. Easyjet’s CEO Johan Lundgren also drew scathing comments from commentators when he appealed to the Government to provide the company with a loan to support the business from claiming bankruptcy, while simultaneously planning to pay shareholders dividends of £170m later the same week.

Early wrong moves can result in embarrassing U-turns, such as Sports Direct, which made an announcement to all of its staff that its stores would be remaining open just 30 minutes after the Prime Minister made his lockdown statement. After establishing that the organisation did not fall under the excepted businesses, it had to backtrack and CEO Mike Ashley was forced to apologise.

Some well-meaning but misjudged actions can come across as window-dressing and even backfire. For example, when ASOS declared that NHS workers would get 20% off clothes for the duration of the crisis, Angela Rayner MP – who is tipped to become Labour’s Deputy Leader next week – replied telling them that the best thing they could do as a business to help the NHS would be to close down their production altogether. In this instance, the gesture hindered rather than helped the retailer’s cause. Other MPs have also piled in to criticise ASOS, including Jeremy Corbyn, Stephanie Peacock, and Chi Onwurah. After ASOS Boss Nick Beighton blocked them on Twitter, Neil Coyle MP warned that this “would not stop scrutiny or investigations further down the line”.

Chair of the Commons Business Committee Rachel Reeves followed up by urging people to share with the Committee if they had a boss forcing them to go to work or not offering enough support during the crisis. She added that the Committee wants to hold “bad bosses” to account, suggesting that any business that has attracted negative coverage should watch out for a coming inquiry into this period, once Parliament returns.

On the other hand, companies that have made the responsible decision to support their employees and customers stand to benefit from increased public trust and heightened reputation. For some, such as Sky TV, employee safeguarding has been a top priority, sending home vulnerable workers with full pay, equipping engineers with safety gear and giving customer service staff free lunches to thank them for staying. Others, such as Waitrose, demonstrated their care for their customers and wider community, by creating a £1 million support fund for communities and its employees, and additional local delivery services for vulnerable customers and people isolated in their homes.

To behave responsibly, businesses must have a leadership and culture in placed that puts workers first. For example, Kurt Geiger drew positive headlines for suspending its CEO’s salary during the closure period, encouraging its workers to volunteer with Age UK to help the elderly and offering a 50% discount on its products to NHS workers. Lloyds Bank suspended 780 planned job cuts across its bank branches, explaining it was “not the right time, either for colleagues or for customers” and has granted mortgage holidays to over 70,000 customers in a week. It also confirmed that it would waive interest on arranged overdrafts for customers from April.

The C-19 Business Pledge, which has been set up by former Education Secretary Justine Greening, will make business action even more visible and accountable to the public. Companies who sign up commit to helping their employees, customers and communities, and sharing ideas to help the national effort on coronavirus. Once the immediate threat is past, we will emerge into a world eager to hold big business accountable for their actions during the crisis.

Those that have behaved well will be remembered and rewarded with increased trust; those that haven’t may find once-loyal customers will be gone for good.

 

If you would like more information on how your business can respond to the coronavirus crisis, communicate the actions you are taking to be a responsible business and move from compliance to leadership, please email Responsible Business Director Alice Wood on alice.wood@lexcomm.co.uk

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