The need for ethical awareness and practice; now more than ever

In our recent blog post, we called on corporate leaders to reflect on their role during the current crisis and on the added value they can bring to help prepare their organizations for the post-crisis period. We then discussed the need for companies to identify new risks, including ethical risks, and implement a crisis management plan, making decisions while considering the impact on all stakeholders.

The hiatus caused by the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for businesses and the economy as a whole to reinvent themselves. As part of this reflection, organizations will need to assess not only how to ensure their continuity, but whether and how to contribute to the achievement of broader societal goals. This kind of transformation will require ethical awareness. As recommended by sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, “we must use this pause to reflect, to step back and question some of our ways of doing and thinking”.

In this recovery, social and governance issues are crucial. Climate change, the ecological crisis, sustainable consumption trends and the broader expectations of civil society cannot be ignored. It will be necessary to balance the preservation of life and the pursuit of livelihoods, and to consider both human and natural resources. These are difficult but necessary equations to ensure an organization’s continuity. Directors will need to be ready, trained, and in an enabling environment in order to deliver the added value that is expected of them.

A recent study by Just Capital assesses the initial responses of the 300 largest public US firms to the crisis, logging actions including furloughing staff, support with dependent care, health and safety provision and remote working options. Every decision a company makes is reflective of their culture and values. During a recession, the values are often forgotten about and replaced with graphs of revenue going down and the number of employees needing to be fired going up. The CEO of Airbnb however, challenged the societal norms when he penned this letter to his employees last month. From an ethical perspective, businesses must maintain supplier relationships and open communication around the Human Rights risks associated with COVID-19 and its carryover effects. To avoid subjecting vulnerable workers to mistreatment, organisations of all sizes need to ensure there is transparency across every phase of their supply chain, now more than ever.

As we have seen, ethics has a dynamic aspect that involves all parties. Does the government have a role to play in fostering greater alignment between organizations’ behaviours and the new imperatives of civil society? Could the recognition of new business models by governments promote ethical leadership and cultural change within companies? Questions we must repeatedly ask ourselves as we make our way through the current crisis.