Reputational risk and the coronavirus pandemic

Coach Oliver Hansard argues that employers need to think how they will be remembered long after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

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While many employers are doing what they can to help employees adapt to the crisis conditions we are now working in, others are not covering themselves in glory, says our regular blogger Oliver Hansard. The impact on company reputation is likely to be long-lasting.

I’ve been involved in a number of crisis management meetings over the past few days about the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic. One that may not be apparent, but will be long term, centres around reputation.

Some businesses are getting it wrong. Sports Direct seems to have a knack of consistently behaving badly. Many are being opportunistic and are using the current crisis to unilaterally change the working terms and conditions of their employees (see the case study below) or are finding ways to wriggle out of existing trading arrangements which they have long regretted committing to.

Others are getting it right. For example, Sky are allowing Sky Sports subscribers to suspend their subscriptions at no charge, just by pressing a button. Of course, it would be reputational madness if they didn’t. The supermarkets are doing a fantastic job keeping us all fed in really difficult circumstances. Tesco is a good example of getting the balance right between looking after customers, employees and suppliers.

A good friend of mine works as a manager for a concession in a large department store. His employers notified the entire staff that they were to be unilaterally put on zero hours contracts with two weeks’ notice. No consultation, little explanation, no effort to engage with the government’s offers of financial support. Yes, the business may be under stress, but is this the right way to proceed? The employees have long been aware that the company has a poor reputation in the industry; if it survives, it will be interesting to see how many of the current staff leave as quickly as they can.

I was pleased to see a consistent theme in the discussions I was involved in. At the top of the agenda was continuing to operate in the right way and to not behave badly. The unfortunate truth is that many businesses and individuals are going to experience significant financial difficulties. If they behave poorly not only might these difficulties be exacerbated, but also hard-won reputations might be put at risk. Those that act with little integrity now will inevitably find recovery harder as others become weary of doing business with them. Here are some thoughts and tips that have emerged for me over the past couple of weeks:

So what should employers do?

  • Consider the reputational dimension of every crisis-led decision you make
  • When tough decisions are being made, try to imagine yourself looking back at the decision you are taking and evaluate whether you will feel good about it once the dust settles
  • Put your people first; you will need loyal and motivated staff when things get going again
  • Remember your suppliers, particularly those who are integral to your success. Can you pay them early, or over order, or do anything you can afford to help them too?
  • Don’t forget your customers either. Is there anything you can offer them to help them now which they need which will reinforce your relationship with them in the future?
  • Most importantly, remember this will come to an end at some point and those around you will remember how you behaved when things were tough.

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Benjamin Franklin.

*Oliver Hansard is a Business Coach and Founder of Hansard Coaching.

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