Responsible Businesses Step Forward – Governments Can’t Fight this Virus Alone​

By Paul Polman, Co-Founder, IMAGINE, and former CEO, Unilever

The many layers to the COVID-19 crisis are unfolding in front of our eyes. Our political leaders, financial institutions and global governance structures are being severely tested. Their job is made all the harder by low levels of public trust and broken social contracts in many parts of the world. Many countries are bracing, should their health services buckle as they have in countries already badly affected. Despite the many wonderful acts of charity being witnessed in communities in lockdown, we know imminent hardship will take a toll on social cohesion.

As the limits on our go-to crisis-management tools become clear, it is increasingly apparent that we need the private sector to join the coronavirus front line. There’s a reason the White House has asked Walmart and others to help with drive-thru testing and Downing Street wants manufacturers to shift production lines to building ventilators. Governments, central banks and the WHO will not defeat this disease alone.

Responsible capitalism, which seeks to move corporate culture beyond shareholder primacy, now faces its biggest test yet. Today’s CEO’s are knee-deep in invidious choices as they attempt to absorb losses, steady cashflow and balance the competing needs of their investors, customers, staff and suppliers. There are no firm answers, just best judgements and countless unknowns over supply chains, volatile markets and the impact of travel bans and social distancing. It will be impossible to keep everyone happy.

And yet perhaps there is opportunity too. In recent years we have seen that employees and consumers increasingly reward businesses that use their powers for good. Companies which uphold clear values to advance a bigger societal mission regularly exhibit stronger financial performance. We saw this clearly at Unilever during my ten years as CEO, when putting purpose at the heart of our business model delivered a 300% shareholder return. As companies respond to coronavirus, false virtuousness will be easy to spot. Business leaders who back moral statements with practical action will stand out.

First, by redeploying their unique capabilities to meet society’s immediate needs. Think war-time effort. Luxury goods giant LVMH is producing hand sanitizer in its perfume factories, for use in French hospitals. Johnson & Johnson has donated a million surgical masks to Chinese health workers. IKEA is helping kit-out hospitals in affected areas. These acts will not be forgotten by the recipients and will build goodwill among the wider public for a long time to come.

Second, responsible firms will do everything possible to protect their people, meaning employees, customers and supply chains. Promoting health and safety is priority number one. Next is trying to mitigate the financial impact, especially for staff on precarious contracts. Microsoft has agreed to keep paying regular wages to the hourly workers who support their campus, even if hours reduce. UK supermarket Morrisons has just launched a hardship fund for employees facing difficulties as a result of the virus. Others are following suit, some by initiating paid sick leave. While governments can and must provide support to families, it is foolish to hope that overstretched national exchequers can do all the heavy lifting. If our societies are to emerge from the turmoil as strong as possible, it will be essential for businesses to do their bit.

Easier said than done. It is always tempting to ensure your investors get paid first. But long-sighted firms who balance this demand with providing real help to other groups will see immense benefits in the months and years ahead.

These companies will build more resilient and more loyal workforces, better positioned to weather a prolonged economic storm. All but the hardest-hit large firms should be able to protect vulnerable workers through dedicated schemes and guaranteed minimum income, including those people unable to perform their duties because of sickness or through no fault of their own. Doing everything possible to insulate supply chains, especially extending credit where needed, is not only ethically right but is in companies’ enlightened self-interest. The fewer businesses that go to the wall, the better for the overall health of the economy and our eventual recovery.

None of this is revolutionary. The last decade has seen a growing movement towards long-term, multi-stakeholder business models. And it’s obvious that most businesses can’t thrive in faltering economies. But don’t underestimate the siege mentality that will be gripping many boardrooms and the powerful instinct to protect profits, even if compassion and humanity are the cost.

The greatest business leaders will, by contrast, play a longer game to serve the societies which host them in this moment of great need, offering people security and stability as an antidote to panic and fear. Employees above all will expect this. This extraordinary and overwhelming crisis demands more of our top executives, as they help lead our response. The best will advance the interests of others, knowing that it makes us all better off. Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai said that, in the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. For C-suites everywhere, that time is now.

This article was previously featured on LinkedIN and is reproduced with permission

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