Employee Relations during the Coronavirus Outbreak:
Make Sure to be Fair!
Many companies are encouraging white-collar employees to work from home to ensure their health and safety. There is also a blue-collar employee side of this issue. Industrial workers in physical production are still working on-site unless their production activity halts. Companies which have suspended their activities are either implementing unpaid leave policies or suspending contracts. The same situation also applies to supply chain employees. Blue-collar employees’ unwillingness to work due to being exposed to a life-threatening risk or being subjected to different work policies than while-collar employees may consequently damage the sense of justice within the company. This discourse, which is spreading in workers’ unions, carries the risk of deepening the discrimination and causing a further crisis. Therefore, employee relations management of today will be the determinant of every company’s future.
So, is it possible to prevent these risks? Business continuity can only be ensured if the multi-dimensionality of the situation is understood and accurate steps are taken for each dimension.
Employers and employees have dozens of questions regarding the arrangement of current business relations and the legal infrastructure of the steps taken to adapt to this new situation. It is possible to find an answer to many questions on legal ground. Nevertheless, major differences may emerge between doing what is legal and what is fair, especially in the times of crisis. Likewise, calculating a decision’s impact on long-term business relations and outcomes as well as evaluating its reputational outputs is vital for any business’ continuity.
Every day, a General Manager or Human Resources Manager faces many questions and makes many decisions. How to persuade your employees to work? Which tools to use to announce this decision? How to convince an employee to work after a two-week break? Should you suspend your employee’s contract? Should you delay your supplier’s payments? What will you do if a suspicious health problem appears in an employee’s family? How will you conduct Collective Labor Agreement negotiations? How to motivate white-collars when they are working remotely? Unfortunately, these questions do not have one-size-fits-all answers.
Although the answers may differ, it is possible to determine the right actions by filtering them through 4 filters. Decisions to be made at this point will determine which side of the thin line the company will fall, between being caught up in gridlock or emerging as a sustainable company with strong employee engagement.
Does it Support Combating the Crisis?
With their international connections, easy access to information, logistics networks, know-how, extensive collaborations and being organized, companies play a crucial role in the solution process to a crisis like this. Being a part of the global and national solidarity against the coronavirus pandemic is not only ethical for companies, but also a fundamental part of their jobs. In this context, it is necessary to evaluate the impact of all actions taken against this global pandemic.
First of all, establishing the health and safety of employees, suppliers and customers is the primary obligation. Full compliance with the restrictions, guidance and practices imposed by both the international organizations and governments must be ensured.
In addition, the company should genuinely answer whether it is providing a critical service or product that will contribute overcoming this crisis. For instance, an organization that provides food, health and hygiene products and services to remain open is an equally a sacrifice and an obligation. In this case, the employer is obliged to take measures against providing its products and services to the demandants without disruption. Employee behavior and mentality should also be in line, so necessary communication should continuously be made by the employer. Thus, employees’ sacrifices are appreciated, and corporate reputation is preserved.
Is it Fair?
During a crisis, employers must filter their actions on fairness prior to taking action. We are referring to the concept of being fair rather than acting fair. Being fair requires internalization of fairness and precise empathy skills. For example, have you taken measures to minimize employee’s exposure to risk in an organization that must continue its operations? Can you tell your employee that she/he can continue working with peace of mind? To answer yes, you must be able to be present at that production facility as a manager. From s supplier’s contract to offering unpaid leave, it is necessary to use the fairness filter. Put yourself in the shoes of your stakeholders: is your decision simply taking advantage of an opportunity? Would you be content if you were in their shoes?
The crisis will be over one day. On that day, the reputation of companies which were fair during the crisis will be considerably stronger than those who weren’t.
Is it Transparent and Participatory?
Before taking any decision, it is essential to ensure information is shared openly and transparently with the people affected by the decision, and those participatory methods are determined in the decision process. To guarantee this, you must be a consistent source of information from day one. From measures taken to possible problems caused by the crisis, informing stakeholders transparently will increase reliability. Except for basic decisions, consulting with stakeholders who will be affected by the decision and maintaining communication even in suspension times will ensure that your actions are embraced by everyone.
Some practical actions for this regard can be taken quickly. Employees can be trained on the risks posed by the virus and the health and safety of the workplace. Including blue-collar employees, infrastructure and training deficiencies can be eliminated to provide access to online tools. Online meetings, training, Q&A’s, social events etc. can be evaluated. Many great tools and examples are available for this example.
Is it Sustainable?
Health always comes first, but now health must come first and it is followed by its continuity. If we cannot maintain our jobs after the crisis, we can’t provide value to ourselves, employees, suppliers and the economy in general. Thus, we need to make sure that every action we take serves in our business’ continuity. I do not refer to today when I say continuity. As I have said before, this crisis will be over one day; one month or two years. Despite its end date, we have to ensure that we’re not mortgaging our future. It can be financial as well as reputational. We should use this crisis period to try and develop business models that will ensure its continuity. Studies can be carried out to minimize risks and increase productivity in areas of production.
On the other hand, we must take actions to ensure that our fundamental suppliers and employees get through this period with the minimum damage. Let’s not forget that we will eventually pay for the decisions we make today. When everything goes back to normal, it will not be possible for a company that has lost its supply chain or critical employees due to its flawed decisions.
I mentioned the importance of companies having reflexes to protect itself and maintain its business. It shouldn’t be forgotten that employees and trade unions share the same reflexes. Employees who bare their own neck during the crisis to expect a return for their efforts and risks they take is utterly reasonable. The respondent of this will naturally be the employer.
Our basic principle here is to share the commercial or reputational profit in a fair manner. To elaborate, it is important that companies which are part of the social solidarity and support public health and governments’ efforts by donating products and/or services announce their actions. The announcements create a domino effect, encouraging other players in the sector. Sharing the reputational gain with the employees (workers, logistics employees, retail employees etc.) is valuable to be sustainable and to be fair.
We will get through this crisis together. What’s important is that the steps we will take, decisions we will make and marks we will leave to strengthen us in the future. It shouldn’t be forgotten that crisis periods can also become periods of increasing employee engagement, improving relations, increasing trust and establishing a social reputation. Companies that acknowledge and protect the rights of its employees, suppliers and the public can achieve significant gains in the long run.
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