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How NOT to Lead in the Era of COVID-19

Words by Leon Kaye
COVID-19

It’s impossible to list all the companies that have been standing tall in this time of crisis. We’re seeing heroic efforts from garment companies both large and small. Technology companies have helped to make students' jarring transition from the classroom to distance learning more seamless. Retailers are waking up and offering a boost in pay and, most importantly, paid sick leave. 

But honestly, from our vantage point, America’s small businesses — many of which are on the brink — are punching above their weight in an effort to support their communities and employees. You’ve surely seen the social media posts from your city’s local restaurants asking you to buy gift cards, with anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of those proceeds going to employee assistance funds.

Meanwhile, we here at TriplePundit received several story pitches from some of America’s largest companies and their foundations touting monetary and in-kind donations, which look impressive as a raw dollar amount, but on average run between one-thousandth to one-ten-thousandth of 1 percent of these companies’ revenues.

That’s why some recent stories on the newswires are giving businesses a template of how not to approach a crisis. Here’s the fact: Once we’ve emerged from these dark days, many of us will remember the brands that stepped up, as well as those that punted.

Take Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who had urged the White House to include in any stimulus bill “protections and benefits for independent workers, not just employees.” But Uber’s business model depends on gig economy workers fronting the costs of health insurance on their own — and as Gizmodo’s Bryan Menegus pointed out this week, any benefits promised to drivers who are exposed to the novel coronavirus occurred due to pressure from Congress, not out of any sense of responsibility to these workers. Furthermore, the company has no clear plan on how it could notify passengers if they were potentially exposed to the virus during a ride. 

Meanwhile, Amazon, which stands to profit handsomely during this crisis, said it would offer paid sick days in the event any worker is exposed to the virus. But after launching a $25 million employee assistance fund, the company asked the public to contribute donations to this program. After some criticism, Amazon changed the wording on this plea. Yes, the company did make it clear that it wasn’t expecting consumers to donate, as that language was required due to legalities. Nevertheless, at a minimum, the optics weren’t good.

“Isn't it a bit unseemly for Amazon, a company owned by the richest person in the world, to be soliciting donations to pay for workers' sick leave? Why isn't Amazon just paying people who contracted COVID-19 while doing essential work for Amazon?” journalist Judd Legum asked this week in his daily Popular Information newsletter. The first answer, we think, is yes. The answer to the second question would be a Dr. Anthony Fauci face-palm. 

True, in fairness, no one in government or business has faced a firestorm quite like this. But just as countless citizens are stepping up to sew masks or deliver food to the elderly, we need our business leaders to show empathy and to reassure us that they are looking out for the most vulnerable.

Stay safe, everyone.

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Image credit: Mick Haupt/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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