Coronavirus: Corporate Leaders Grapple with Major Disruption by Putting Employees First

Amid the growing coronavirus epidemic, leaders across the world in all industries face enormous disruptions to the status quo: supply chain disruptions, mandatory and widespread quarantines, major economic turbulence, international politics, and of course, these continual changes impact their employees who are the lifeblood of their organizations.

In addition to helping to keep employees well, decision makers are figuring out how to communicate to their employees, while keeping operations as optimal as possible, taking cost-saving or cash-preservation measures, and facing an uncertain future.

We surveyed 51 gatekeepers℠—CEOs, C-level executives, talent executives, and C-level advisors within companies ranging from $100 million to $125 billion in annual revenue—to find out what they’re doing to stay focused through the biggest challenge of their leadership careers: tackling COVID-19.

Our community of leaders shared with us the difficulties they are experiencing and what they are doing to steer their employees and businesses through very choppy and mostly unchartered waters. When asked, “What are the most important concerns for leaders amid the crisis,” our gatekeepers shared their four most important concerns:

  1. Prioritize employee health and well-being

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, shares the following: “We are operating under a framework that prioritizes the health and welfare of employees and society first.”

For gatekeeper Donna Morea, chairman of the board at SAIC and Wesleyan University and board director at Truist, taking care of your people during a crisis is job number one.

“Help them stay as healthy and productive as possible, and take worries about financial security off the table,” she says.

“Our people are our main concern—their safety and sense of well-being. You have nothing if you do not care for and protect your employees,” gatekeeper Stephen Lavin, CTO of Redbox, shares.

The great majority of the gatekeepers told us their employees are their first concern, and along with that priority, they have taken many definitive and rapid actions to keep both their employees and the community safe. Some of the steps have directly impacted their financial results—like eliminating travel, canceling conferences, and increasing sick pay. But leaders are more concerned with the health of their employees and greater community.

Gatekeepers are taking many unique paths to put their employees first. John Englehart, SVP, Communications and Chief Marketing Officer for Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), shared that his company has created a custom application that employees can use to access real-time information, policies, FAQs, and important contacts.

Alec Saunders, Senior Director at Microsoft, shared that Microsoft parents who now need to take care of school-age children while working from home will be paid for caretaking time, and several gatekeepers are implementing quarantine paid time off and special anxiety-reducing services onsite.

Understanding the worries and concerns employees are feeling is paramount, according to Dave Hardie, Managing Director at Herbert Mines: “We closed our office for the wellbeing of our employees, but they can come in if they prefer, and we are paying for their rides if they do not want to use public transportation in NYC. We want everyone to do what they think is best to feel healthy and safe.”

  1. Communicate effectively and frequently

The gatekeepers understand that effective communication is important in any crisis. With lives on the line, it’s even more critical. And they unanimously agree that the last thing you should do is stay silent—regardless of what the circumstances are.

Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, relays the following: “Messages must be delivered frequently and consistently—with candor and honesty. That means speaking with more assurance than authority. People would rather know the truth than dwell on the worst-case scenarios residing in their imaginations.”

Communication was top of mind for most gatekeepers. “Being transparent, communicating frequently, and responding to the situation both proactively and definitively is critical,” says gatekeeper Tom Geisel, president of corporate banking at Sterling National Bank.

“Right now, for leadership, it is all about communication. The level of media attention is creating widespread fear, and the role of leadership is to present the facts in the context of our business, so employees know what to expect,” explains gatekeeper Rick Stepien, president of Ideal Tridon.

And within businesses that are highly disrupted, the importance and complexity of communications is tenfold. Nigel Hurst, executive vice president of HEI Hotels and Resorts, says that leaders “must clearly communicate and act on their concerns for employees’ health and their family’s well-being, but also be upfront on necessary cost-saving measures while asking for their employees’ understanding.”

  1. Be prepared to navigate all waters

Many gatekeepers have started preparations for scenarios they never thought possible. They have also implemented some of their contingency plans already. And business factors are changing more rapidly than ever before.

In a fluctuating environment, it’s important to think strategically on matters, and the gatekeepers have already utilized new methods for cash conservation, transporting employees, utilizing the workforce in creative ways to reduce the loss of jobs, deploying unique communication approaches, and implementing tech-enabled services to forestall business disruption. They’ve also found unusual sources of supply and have been shoring up business partners to sustain their operations.

Fede Barreto, CFO at the Plymouth Tube company, talks about being prepared. “Regardless of how hard it is to predict how this will evolve, we have had to nimbly adapt to the volatility of the situation, ensuring we have a defined approach to address variables.”

Alicia Muntzner, Chief Revenue Officer at, agrees it’s important to look ahead: “thinking about short-term and long-term consequences and how to manage for various scenarios” is most important for leaders amid this crisis.

One gatekeeper, a top technology services leader within an $11B revenues company, shared the following, “leaders now need to plan for disruptions to the global supply chain, major impacts to the economy, and the possibility of mandatory widespread quarantines” in the US.

  1. Be the calm

Alan Jope recently shared a note with employees. His message to all Unilever employees was personal: “I am acutely aware that these changes to our working arrangements will have a big impact on our lives. None of the measures have been taken without careful thought and consideration about what this will mean for all of us, and I want to reassure you that we will support you through this change.”

Changes that disrupt employees’ lives are necessary for the business and the broader community. Understanding the impact those changes have on your employees’ lives—and making sure they knowyou understand what they are going through—strengthens your company’s ability to weather the crisis.

Gatekeeper Judy Zagorski, EVP and CHRO of Church & Dwight, agrees that demonstrating empathy is an important aspect to leading through the coronavirus crisis. She explains, “Employee fear, stress, and anxiety needs to be reduced through a common understanding, as well as information and support.” If employees feel their leaders understand what they are going through, they will feel that the company is all in it together.

Communicating your understanding of your employee’s situation and understanding that a crisis brings on fear, rumors, and feelings of panic, many gatekeepers talked about the importance of managing their own emotions by staying calm and remaining focused on their employees, customers, and partners so they may feel reassured by their leadership.

Mark Sullivan, president of Buckhorn, Inc., shared how important it is for leaders to understand that the employee rumor mill may not be fact-based—and that misinformation can take hold during times of crisis. “It is important for leaders to put themselves in their employees’ shoes and ensure that their message is fact-based and reassuring. By dispelling misinformation, you can calm employee panic which seems to be lying just below the surface.”

Finally, many leaders emphasized both planning for and talking about the end of the crisis to calm employees and ensure that your company comes out the other side stronger.

Leaders of big and small companies face enormous challenges. Navigating these challenges successfully requires quick and decisive leadership. Putting your people first, communicating effectively, being prepared for all scenarios, and empathizing with and calming your employees will position you and your company to persevere and overcome.


the gatekeepers℠ is a virtual community of senior leaders who donate time, advice, and insights due to their commitment to publish free content for up-and-coming leaders and leaders undergoing change.

Waterman Hurst sponsors the gatekeepers as it aligns with their corporate mission.

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