What can HR do if CEOs don’t respond well to Covid-19?

Martin Tiplady answers some reader queries on what to do if leaders won’t let staff work from home or don’t support scenario planning around continued lockdown

Many company bosses have reacted admirably to the huge challenges posed by coronavirus – giving staff bonuses for hard work in tough circumstances... being quick to support home working wherever possible… taking pay cuts or forgoing pay altogether for the foreseeable future to help their business weather the storm…

Other CEOs have been less exemplary. The FTSE company chief exec yet to announce plans to cut their pay despite furloughing staff, according to recent High Pay Centre analysis, for example – and the three other FTSE businesses still paying shareholder dividends. Mike Ashley’s decision to initially keep Sports Direct open, despite the government ordering all non-essential retailers to close, also springs to mind…

People Management has heard from a couple of readers struggling with bosses still not taking the threat of Covid-19 to worker wellbeing seriously enough. Martin Tiplady, CEO of Chameleon People Solutions and former HR director, offers some advice on how they might tackle these situations...

“The owner of the small cleaning company I work at is still making three managers come into the office every day, despite them being able to manage all their work from home. The work is vital in cleaning for Covid-19 but he is oblivious to the health and safety of the managers who have to sit together in a small office answering mobiles. They are key workers but could easily be key working from home. But the owner won’t allow it; he argues constantly that it isn't necessary.”

This is difficult as I suspect any action on your three managers’ parts would result in fairly serious and draconian action against them. Undoubtedly, they should be allowed to work from home assuming they can do so easily, as appears to be the case, and that should be the end of it until lockdown measures are lifted. In disallowing it, the owner is opening himself up to potential claims down the line, but I suspect that might not fuss him. And it certainly won’t resolve the matter now.

I suggest the three managers write a joint letter to the owner politely expressing their concern at the risk he is exposing them to, the reasonableness of being allowed to work from home when this would provide the same level of cover, and his unreasonableness in simply disallowing it. You might want to suggest the three managers draw up a roster so each takes it in turns to work a week at a time in the office, referring issues as necessary to the other two working from home. This would meet the owner halfway, and so would be reasonable on the three managers’ parts. And it would be helpful evidence in the event that later claims need to be pursued. 

“Our CEO is just not accepting that we're in this lockdown situation for a good few weeks yet. I'm pushing to make plans and work flow for the next six weeks but he's thinking we'll be back in the office in two. We’re also struggling with really disproportionate workloads across the leadership team, with some individuals not supporting each other.” 

Alas, he is the boss and thinks he is right! You and I might agree he is wrong, but if he thinks you will all be back in two weeks then – however much you might disagree – that is his assessment and you must work with him. But I also suggest you propose to him it would be sensible to simultaneously work up shadow plans, so far as you can, and seek the input of your leadership colleagues in doing so. Work it up as if it is a helpful presentation to him so that he and your colleagues are not caught unawares. Suggest a debrief based on the first few days of the lockdown: what has worked, what hasn’t, things to change, etc. In other words, you are working with him rather than making him think you all disagree with him. We know the lockdown is in place until at least early May – and the signs are it will remain until the end of May in its current or similar form, so it will not be wasted effort. 

As for your unsupportive colleagues, that is commonplace regrettably in the current circumstances. Some are really helping and managing well. Others… are not. Involve them all in your planning and try to get them on board by getting them to think through and draft part of the bigger plan beyond their immediate sphere of responsibility. If they refuse, just do it yourself. Judgement day will reckon later.