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Leading During a Crisis: How to Protect Your Employees

Cornerstone Editors

The world of work changed virtually overnight with the global spread of COVID-19. In this series, we'll share personal stories and perspectives from Cornerstone employees who—like so many of us—are doing their best to balance life, work and learning from their couches, kitchen tables and other makeshift office spaces.


With astonishing swiftness, the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses large and small, bringing the U.S. and global economy to a standstill. As of April 9, 2020, nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Unfortunately, this number is expected to gradually increase in the coming weeks, and many experts now predict that a recession is imminent.

How companies react right now is crucial. Anxiety levels are high, but this is an opportunity for organizations to set themselves apart by putting their most valuable asset—their people—ahead of profits for as long as they can.

For example, after sending everyone home to work remotely, Facebook announced that all employees will receive six-month bonuses and an additional $1,000 bonus to help them during the coronavirus outbreak. Amgen, a pharmaceutical company that makes medications for heart disease and migraines, sent some employees home with $250 stipends, a $50-a-month allowance for internet and phone services and a promise to pay them whatever they normally earn each week even if their work demands dwindle.

Not all organizations will have the deep pockets to make these kinds of immediate expenditures, but there are other ways companies can take care of their workers—and brace them for the impact of the coming recession. Here are a few way to protect your employees and prepare them for what’s ahead:

Recalibrate Your Incentive Plans

If there is an individual performance component to your incentive plan design, consider recalibrating these metrics to reflect the reality of our current crisis. Facebook, for example, has defaulted all their employees to their highest performance rating of "Exceeds Expectations" for its current six-month review cycle and made these payouts immediately.

To put money in the hands of people now and reduce the stress of impending performance reviews in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, adjust the process. Goals set at the beginning of the year will likely not be met. Instead, establish new, more realistic quotas, timelines, project deliverables and milestones.

For Vulnerable Workers, Offer Hazard Pay

Any organization deemed an essential business during COVID-19 (grocery stores, hardware stores, etc.) is likely worried about the health of its workers. To express and act on this concern, they should consider providing vulnerable or essential workers with hazard pay—temporary lump-sum appreciation bonuses that typically range from two to three times the standard base rate.

Kroger, a popular food retailer, has awarded its frontline workforce with lump-sum appreciation bonuses. This will translate to $300 bonus payments made to all full-time hourly employees and $150 payments for all part-time hourly employees. Whole Foods is taking similar actions after the grocery store chain was publicly shamed for failing to provide proper care and protective equipment for its employees. The company has now pledged to raise the pay of its hourly employees by$2 per hour for the next month.

Extra compensation for those employees putting in the extra work right now (and putting their health at risk) is the right thing to do. These payments will not only make workers feel appreciated, but it can provide them with the additional resources they might need if they get sick.

Begin Budgeting for Crisis Management

Make it a priority to create or contribute to a crisis management fund for your business. Set aside money, place it in savings and do not touch it. Many companies do this already and put 1% of payroll into a promotional or ad hoc market adjustment budget to be used throughout the year as needs arise. If possible, businesses should start organizing these relief funds as quickly as possible. During the COVID-19 pandemic and in its imminent aftermath, they will need this money to assist their workforce (and keep the lights on).

Embrace Unlimited PTO

In general, I think companies today waste too much time on tracking the accrual and use of PTO. The amount of time required to track, monitor, approve, deny and mitigate issues around it is a prime example of process for the sake of a process. Unlimited PTO, on the other hand, is managed between manager and salaried employee as needs arise and allows for flexibility when necessary.

During COVID-19, embrace unlimited PTO or establish specific two- to three-week PTO banks for all salaried employees. This way, if employees become sick, they can take care of themselves without becoming stressed about being able to make ends meet.

Use This Opportunity to Rethink and Redesign

We are experiencing a true cultural fulcrum point. Organizations must act tactically now in many ways—but we also have an opportunity to sit back and rethink many of our policies and practices. HR professionals, business leaders and managers everywhere have the chance to re-center their organizations as strategic, caring and able to handle crises. After COVID-19, nothing will be the same, so now is the time to decide what to clean up and what to throw out as we step into this new world of work.

Jeremy Spake is a principal of thought leadership & strategy at Cornerstone.

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