Pandemic is a Bottom Line Issue for Retailers, Workers and Consumers
Do employees think you’re doing enough to protect them from COVID-19? If not, you run the risk of them staging strikes and walk-outs. That crisis could lead to another one: consumers who think “if it’s not safe to work there, it must not be safe to buy there.” All of which would lead to a third crisis: news organizations doing stories on whether you’re following the COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
If I were your crisis management consultant, here’s how I’d advise you to handle that situation.
Remember the first rule of holes: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Do the right thing now — otherwise, public opinion won't be on your side. The sooner you take steps to fully protect your workers from COVID-19, the better. By not doing everything you should do now, you could be accused of helping to spread the disease. If you decide to abide by CDC and other guidelines, then issue an apology for not doing so earlier.
The True Cost
What you need to spend to make workers safe from the pandemic will likely pale in comparison to the time, money and effort you’ll need to repair your image, reputation and bottom line if you refuse to follow federal guidelines. And that doesn't include the income you’ll lose because of the customers who decided to take their business elsewhere.
Put yourself in the shoes of your workers. If you were them, what would you want your company to do?
Avoid More Trouble
Be careful about doing or saying anything that could put your company in legal jeopardy, violate labor agreements, or make matters any worse than they are now.
The pandemic won't end any time soon. According to health officials, there are no preventive measures or treatments, and an effective vaccine is 12 months to 18 months away. Every day you don't properly protect your workers is another day in which you're putting their health and safety in potential danger — and the future of your company at risk.
Digging a Deeper Hole
If you adamantly refuse to do what’s necessary to satisfy the health and safety concerns of employees, then be prepared for a long and bumpy road. You'll be putting yourself in a difficult, if not impossible, defensive position that will be hard to justify. Given what other retailers are doing to protect their employees, why won’t you protect yours? If you insist on digging yourself deeper into this hole, I would tell you to:
- Express and demonstrate understanding for what your workers are thinking or feeling.
- Share your views with the media. It's important that you get your side of the story out as soon as possible. Explain why you will not or cannot follow CDC and WHO guidelines.
- Explain what you're doing to protect your workers from the pandemic and how you're doing it.
- Remember that you're not a health or safety expert. Don’t be perceived as thinking you know more about protecting people from the pandemic than the CDC does.
- Don’t couch your actions or decisions in terms of how much you'll have to spend to ensure workers are safe. You cannot and should not put a price tag on protecting people from this virus.
The bottom line is this: What you do — or don't do — to address the health concerns of employees and handle any virus-related employee protests during the pandemic will likely be remembered by workers and the public long after this public health emergency ends.
Edward Segal is a crisis management expert, consultant, and former CEO of two trade associations. He’s the author of "Crisis Ahead — 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies" (Nicholas Brealey).
Related story: Sucharita Kodali on COVID-19's Impact on the Retail Industry