Keep in mind this article is not tailored to a specific country. That means a country might have implemented certain rules that impact, in one way or another, the questions presented below. It’s not just about the end result, but about trying to do the right thing, the best it can possibly be done.
“Opportuncrisis”, some people say. During this COVID-19 crisis, we have the unique opportunity to do something unique about our society: observe how companies behave towards their employees, their customers and the world in general. True character is normally seen when the going gets tough, so this is the perfect scenario for us to analyse companies’ behaviour and make some personal decisions that can have a huge impact if done at scale.
Without discussing too much about politics and society in general, I’m sure many of you would agree with me when I say that the system is broken: we live in an unfair world with innumerable and severe injustice issues. People and firms are part of this system. And for several human beings and companies — not all, thankfully — doing the right thing in a broken context is tough, or at least that’s a common excuse used. Just because the system is broken, it doesn’t mean we can’t behave in an ethical and empathic manner. In “normal” times you would, unfortunately, see some firms behave unethically. But, what worries me most is that now more than ever more firms are behaving in this way. Why should we offer them our time, money and resources when they don’t deserve us? On the other hand, there are plenty of firms out there doing the right thing. They are providing services for free, donating millions and using their technology and skills to help others. They constantly communicate with their people, guiding them and explaining how the firm is helping in these tough times. Those are the companies to whom we should be loyal as both customers and as employees.
Throughout this article, I will refrain from mentioning any firms in particular. Each of us can easily check what firms are doing, or not doing. Luckily, my current employer is behaving brilliantly both in terms of its employees and customers, but I know this is not the case with all the companies out there.
Below I present a few questions we can use to analyse each firm, both as customers and employees. All the questions I pose stem from one bigger and all-encompassing one: are companies prioritising profits over human beings?
Is the company reducing (or even cancelling, temporarily or not) their employees’ salary, even though they could survive while they continue to pay them?
Many small business owners have no alternative other than telling their employees that they are no longer employed. A small coffee shop owner who struggles month to month to make ends meet and to pay the salary of their staff doesn’t have too many options, unfortunately. Asking them to continue employing their staff for weeks — or months, by the looks of it— without any income, is asking them to go bankrupt. Which means now we potentially have an extra family, or more than one, without a job. And it’s possible those previously employed have no chance of returning to the small coffee shop once all this is over.
But there are several larger companies, even massive global corporations, laying off a big portion of their workforce because they are losing money. I’m not talking about ‘laying off or the company goes bust’ situations here, which are completely different, as explained in the previous paragraph. I’m talking about those firms who would seemingly rather sack their staff instead of seeing a decline, sharp or not, of their profits. If a company chooses to save X amount of money instead of saving a family’s wellbeing, they are despicable and evil. It’s not about what’s legal or illegal, as in “it’s within the law to sack all these people”. It’s about having a bit of empathy and helping the people that everyday work their asses off.
Is the company applying regular policies for both their customers and employees instead of adjusting them for this particular situation?
Every company has processes and rules they have to follow. I get that. Even though there are things that I don’t like or I think are bad for customers, I understand. If you bought a flight and you had agreed to pay a reduced price in exchange for securing a non-refundable ticket, there’s not much you can do if your situation suddenly changes.
But policies need to be adapted to the situation. Policies need to be interpreted by those who are responsible for applying them. If that’s not done, we, humans, are no longer that much different from programmed robots. The COVID-19 pandemic is exceptional, so policies must be reviewed and amended if necessary. A couple of weeks ago I was supposed to go to the theatre on a Wednesday to see one of those big and mainstream musicals. That Monday, I contacted the company who sold me the tickets, to inform them that because of COVID-19, I wasn’t going to be able to go (back then theatrical productions were still officially allowed to go ahead, despite being strongly discouraged by the UK Government). I requested to reschedule my tickets. I didn’t ask for a refund. The company’s answer? That because the ticket was confirmed, they didn’t offer refunds, and that perhaps they could offer me moving my booking to a later date if I’d be willing to pay a 20% “administration fee”. I said they should be ashamed for behaving like that, and that I’d be “happy to pay the 20% fee” and take this directly to the ombudsman. A day later, all shows were officially cancelled and my full refund was issued. Because of their behaviour, they lost two tickets — and potentially more, given I’m never booking through them again — instead of rescheduling two tickets and probably getting more bookings from me in the future had they done the right and decent thing.
Is the company in an industry ‘benefitted’ by the pandemic and using that to take advantage instead of helping?
You’ve probably seen it either on the TV or experienced it yourself. Various firms and shops are profiteering in times of desperation in terms of helping. Don’t make the mistake of confusing “selling” with “profiteering”. These are completely different concepts.
Let’s say you own a shop and you normally sell 100 toilet paper roll multipacks a week for £2 a pack. All of a sudden, because of people’s stupid, selfish and reckless behaviour, they are stockpiling on them and now you sell 700 a week. Isn’t that enough of a profit for you? You’re selling seven times as much toilet paper as you normally do. If you try to sell them at an increased price, you’re the personification of greed. Some people will try to justify this by bringing up the concept of “supply and demand”. But that’s bollocks in this context. Do the right thing by keeping the price, and limit the number of toilet paper rolls a single customer can buy so that everyone can get what they need. You’ll still sell the 700 packs, at a fair price, and your customers will keep coming back to your store because you’re a decent storeowner.
If you still are not convinced about why profiteering and increasing prices to cope with the demand is ethically wrong, please think about those who can barely have enough to feed their families. Especially now, with so many people losing their jobs. If the toilet paper pack is sold at £2, hopefully, a family experiencing difficulties can afford to purchase a couple of packs. If you start selling them at £10 each, though, as some shops and other smart-arses did, that family most likely simply cannot afford to buy toilet paper roll. This is not a luxury service. This is almost a basic necessity for any human being.
I used the store example because it’s something we can all relate to. Now, take that example and turn it into millions (or even billions). That’s what many corporations do in times where society need them the most. And we shouldn’t be on their side going forward.
Is the company doing less than what they should be doing to keep people safe and healthy?
Some industries cannot work without people in their workplace. A factory couldn’t produce its wares, a coffee shop wouldn’t be able to prepare coffee and sandwiches, a supermarket would struggle with stock replenishment, and so on. That’s just how it goes. However, there are several companies out there who are in a position to do so that don’t allow their staff— or at least a part of it, those who totally could — to work remotely. Normally, this is seen as an inconvenience for those employees who could be working from home. But, at this particular moment, this is no longer an inconvenience and is now a matter of life and death — not just for the company’s employees but for the rest of the population too.
There’s a very simple explanation as to why some companies forbid people from working remotely. They simply don’t trust their employees. They think that if they cannot see their people, nobody is controlling them, so employees will stop working, start slacking and playing videogames instead of being productive. This lack of trust is insulting if you ask me.
If a company is insisting its staff to go to the office right now, instead of asking them to work remotely when possible and be safe, it means they don’t care too much about people. In fact, it would indicate that they care more about profits than humans.
If, when analysing a firm, either as a customer or an employee, we answered “yes” to any of the questions above, I think it’s fair to say we’re dealing with a company that shouldn’t be “rewarded” with our resources. And, as a result, once it’s safe for us — and not for that company — to do so, we should be parting ways. In most cases, we’ll be able to find another firm willing to provide us with a similar or even better product or service, or an employer that cares much more about our wellbeing as humans.
If we answered “no” to all the questions, I think this means that not only are we lucky to be dealing with a decent company, but I’m fairly confident the firm, once the pandemic is behind us, will thrive. Its staff will be more loyal than ever and will give 110%, similar to what their employer did for them when they needed it the most. Customers will very likely be loyal to that company and will tell their friends about the selfless things this cool company did in times of trouble. Doing the right thing pays off in the long term and that’s exactly how it should be.