Expectations of business leaders–from employees and the general public alike–are greater than ever as they steer their organizations through the Covid-19 crisis. Our research around Covid-19 tells us that employees trust communications from their employer more than those from government or media. In one survey, we found that people believe “my employer” is more prepared to deal with the crisis than the government.

But communicating factual information is only half of the job of business leaders. CEOs, in particular, must also serve the emotional needs of their employees through their actions and words. That means it is critical for leaders to be both chief executive officers and chief empathy officers to keep employees engaged and motivated throughout this uncertain time.

Considerations on leading with empathy during this crisis:

  • Be willing to express vulnerability. In times of fear and distress, CEOs may resist being vulnerable. They’re accustomed to show up with strength, certainty and unflappable poise. Paradoxically, the emotional accessibility shown through empathy demonstrates the highest level of strength. A chief executive’s ability to step away from the air of invincibility and become just like the rest of us builds trust. There were numerous examples of this in the past two weeks as some of the world’s most highly regarded chief executives spoke compassionately and with visible emotion about the virus’ impacts on their people
  • Consider creative business and employee management solutions before making layoffs. Some high-profile leaders are literally applying the “leaders eat last” approach and taking personal pay cuts before or as they are forced to enact layoffs.
    • United Airlines* CEO Oscar Munoz and President Scott Kirby both said that they will forsake their salaries at least through June.
    • Other leaders have aligned their organizational purpose to “doing the right thing” and supporting thveir contingent workers during the crisis. Microsoft announced it will pay its 4,500 hourly service providers, regardless of their hours worked. CEO Satya Nadella shared the news on LinkedIn and Twitter, as did President Brad Smith.
  • Inspire resilience through authentic interactions. Whether it’s sharing a selfie from a home office like Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks or addressing anxiety head-on by providing recommendations on how to cope like Spanx Founder and CEO Sara Blakely, leaders who lead with their humanity at this moment are engaging their people and, in many cases, inspiring employees to rally around a unified purpose. Petco* CEO Ron Coughlin acknowledged that "we're all juggling a lot right now" and shared a quick reminder of “how important it is to laugh and have fun at work" by filming his own version of the viral #fliptheswitch video challenge and published it on LinkedIn and Twitter.
  • Give safety updates ahead of business updates. Employees want to hear from leaders about their safety before hearing about the impact on your business. As of the time of our Trust Barometer special report (March 6-10), essential employees would rather you communicate on steps being taken to avoid bringing the virus into the workplace (66%) and the status of infected employees (57%). Lower on the list of communications employees want to receive, as of the date of our special report survey, is how the virus is affecting revenue and profits (41%). CEOs from Hilton*, Delta and Starbucks*, among many others, have shared what they are doing to keep employees and customers safe before discussing material business impacts. However, we are now starting to see a shift in employee interest toward business performance.
  • Cadence of Communications: Sixty-three percent of respondents to our Trust survey for Covid-19 said that they would prefer daily communications from their employer, and 20% of employees said they wanted to be communicated with multiple times a day. More information from executives demonstrates concern and provides more opportunities for leaders to be known.
  • Protecting employees and the local community. Our Covid-19 Trust Barometer report found that 78% of respondents expect business to protect the greater communities they serve in addition to protecting their employees. Some recent examples of leaders taking such actions include:
    • Microsoft donated $1 million to Puget Sound’s Covid-19 Response Fund (shared to Smith's LinkedIn and Twitter) and made Microsoft Teams available to everyone—a move amplified by EVP of Business Development Peggy Johnson (LinkedIn).
    • Luxury goods company Kering will produce and donate surgical masks and medical coveralls. Kering-owned fashion houses Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent will use their factories to manufacture surgical masks. In Italy, subsidiary Gucci said it will donate 1.1 million surgical masks and 55,000 medical coveralls in the coming weeks.
    • In Thailand, Dhanin Chearavanont, Senior Chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group (CP) announced the company will build a factory in five weeks to begin production of 3 million hygienic masks monthly. This is an endeavor outside of CP’s typical line of business. After the crisis, the Group will donate the factory to the main hospital in Bangkok.
  • Express gratitude. Leaders have used their influence to call attention to people inside and outside their companies who are doing essential and life-saving work. Ingka Group CEO Jesper Brodin shared a LinkedIn article to thank his global teams for their leadership during this time, and Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Newman announced his company would deliver free meals to hospitals in the cities they serve as a gesture of gratitude to health care workers.

As the spread of the virus intensifies, so will the scrutiny under which CEOs operate and guide their workforces as business shifts to the realities of the new normal. Leading throughout with empathy will build resilience with their people and sustain them for the journey ahead.

*Edelman client

Edelman is supporting businesses and organizations looking to better understand the Covid-19 pandemic and its public health implications; manage communications with employees and customers; and receive guidance on strategies and policies for effective preparedness and response efforts.

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