Ethical leadership at a time of crisis

COVID-19 is presenting the world with an unprecedented crisis. Millions of people are concerned for their jobs as companies risk collapse under the strain being placed upon the global financial system. And even in companies where jobs are safe, employees are being forced to change their work patterns and may find projects changing or falling through.

As a leader at any level in an organisation, you are likely to be presented with a multitude of questions from your teams who may be experiencing new challenges on a daily basis.

Here are some top tips for ensuring you are acting as an ethical leader.

Be transparent. Employees in many companies will naturally be concerned for their jobs right now. Economic worries are all over the news, and widespread telecommuting will not stop rumours about job losses and financial cuts.

As with any crisis, leaders should be transparent and open with their teams. Sometimes this might mean being open about the fact that you don’t have all the answers. This is a much better approach than giving false information or trying to deflect, which will quickly lead to a loss of trust. Providing a timeline for when more information might be available can be a useful way of calming the nerves of employees.

Be careful not to overload your teams with too much information. You do not necessarily need to share all the details of scenario planning, for example, with your team. Too much information could be overwhelming, especially with the fast-changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, keep your messaging clear and concise, and if appropriate, point them towards where they might find additional information should they desire. Many companies have set up a section of their intranet where information is updated centrally, allowing employees to access it if and when they choose.

Be empathetic. Now is the time to demonstrate that you are a caring leader. Simply acknowledging that this is a difficult time for people and asking how they are coping is an important first step. Ask whether there is anything you can do to support — there may well not be, but asking shows that you care.

There will be people in your teams more affected by this crisis than others. Some employees will be concerned for the health of loved ones or may have health conditions themselves that put them in a higher risk group for COVID-19. Others will have family members facing job loss or working in frontline jobs like healthcare and other key areas. And some may be struggling more than others with the anxiety and uncertainty over what the next few months and years hold.

As more countries shut schools, you may also find that people suddenly are trying to juggle childcare, home-schooling, and work. Find out from your team who is in this situation and whether any adjustments would help — for example, would working different hours be helpful?

Each team member is likely to be in a slightly different situation. Taking the time to understand the particular challenges they face and whether there is anything you can do to support them will demonstrate to your team that you care.

Be available (within reason). Many companies have asked their employees to work remotely until the spread of COVID-19 is under control. For some people unused to working from home for extended times this will be a major life change, and they may struggle with the adjustment.

Now more than ever it is vital as a leader that you are available to your teams. The quick chat you usually have when you come into the office may not be possible, but you can take steps to show your team that you are still there for support.

Take advantage of software such as Skype, Slack, or Microsoft Teams to send people a quick message asking how they’re getting on. Schedule a half-hour team meeting once a week to discuss “anything but COVID-19”, where people can catch up about their weekend, discuss tips for working at home, and share how their work is going. Have regular one-to-one chats via video so you can check in individually on how people are coping with the crisis and whether they might need any support.

Make sure that you are also looking after your own wellbeing. Setting expectations for what hours you will be working will not only protect you from blurring the lines between work and leisure time, but also send a clear message to your people that you do not expect them to be available all day every day.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how management accountants can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit FM’s coronavirus resources page.

Bryony Clear Hill is the associate manager–Ethics Awareness for CIMA and is based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at