Dealing with internal criminal threats during COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has outpaced the resiliency mechanisms of most global businesses. It is in a context of stress and ambiguity, with limited information and a little history, that business leaders must rethink their strategy, make decisions, and put in place massive plans.

In situations of extreme stress, research has shown that managers tend to make bad decisions for their businesses, using binary choices, limiting options, and focusing on short-term solutions. Situations of great fear often lead to a decrease in confidence in others, an increased dependence on habits, and an increase in negative interpretations of events.

From an ethical perspective, prolonged anxiety can be problematic. It can interfere with judgment, cause business leaders to focus on the wrong things, distort the facts, or justify wrongdoing. This condition can worsen, especially when it is reinforced by:

  • An economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic

These can all lead to an increase in wrongdoing and unethical behavior as employees become more isolated and less encouraged to think of others.

Internal risks on the rise

The Ethics and Compliance departments, which monitor and report on compliance with laws, national and international regulations, professional and ethical standards, as well as internal procedures are on high alert. As Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, explains: “Because of the stress, we’re in a frame of loss, we’re going to engage in more risk-taking behaviors which could be unethical”.

Not to mention that remote work does not prevent the continuity of a toxic culture and harassment. In a decentralized online environment with fewer witnesses, harassers and toxic managers can more easily pursue threats or sexist comments.

Anti-corruption organizations like the ACFE (Association of Certified Fraud Examiners) have warned that the economic upheavals caused by the pandemic will create an environment conducive to corruption and fraud (increased risk of misappropriated assets or fraudulent financial data) as well as the denunciation of existing fraud. In two months (from mid-March to mid-May), the American federal body regulating and controlling the financial markets (SEC) registered an increase in the number of denunciations and complaints concerning possible wrongdoings in the workplace of 35% compared to the previous year.

Protecting your reputation

On top of the legal risks, we must add the possible damage to the reputation. In times of intense pressure, it can be tempting for some to justify illegal behavior and to circumvent social rules or ethical principles. However, if a decision from a rational and logical point of view was previously sufficient, today in the age of social networks and whistleblowers, decisions must also be taken from a moral point of view under risk of scandal and damage to reputation. If some companies think they can “cover” their bad actions because of a pandemic, the current demonstration of support for the anti-racist movement #blacklivesmatter have forced many companies like Adidas, Mars Food, and PepsiCo to reconsider their communication and their strategy, auguring a scrutiny of corporate behavior by stakeholders (media, investors, consumers) when the virus disappears.

Whether or not we are facing a second wave of pandemics, the increase in criminal threats linked to internal behavior requires special attention from the board of directors and the management committee of companies in order to avoid a greater crisis.

Maintaining effective surveillance

If in the current context, operational decisions are privileged, the actions taken must be careful not to affect the anti-fraud and ethical measures of a company as a whole. Supervisory, investigative, and disclosure responsibilities must be able to continue to detect errors and misconduct.

Organizations must also guarantee safe and healthy telework for everyone. Respecting and enforcing fair and ethical standards in all aspects of business life will allow employees to reflect on these values before deciding whether or not to resist wrongdoing. If they feel that fair and respectful treatment continues to be valued and supported by the company, despite working remotely, employees can be more confident, motivated, and attentive to possible abuses. It is by constantly communicating fair values and standards that allow employees to express themselves that companies limit internal attacks.

Balancing leadership

The quality of recovering a crisis is defined by the response of its leaders. Each employee, customer, and consumer will scrutinize the decisions and behavior of companies. Managing the pandemic has shown the success of a pragmatic, honest, empathetic, and humble leadership based on increasing the group’s well-being and common good.

If the current emergency context can tip business leaders and managers on a problem/solution analytical model, they must remain in empathetic contact with their teams. Being open, dialoguing, and communicating in a transparent and authentic way are major assets for companies, as they allow us to reduce anxieties and increase confidence.

Strengthening your company’s mission

Most companies have faced fundamental challenges in order to guarantee their survival: cutting wages, laying off workers, canceling future orders, and borrowing in order to strengthen their balance sheets. However, for many of them, such as the multinational computer company Microsoft, the jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss, or the software editor Salesforce, the approach is more global and focused on the mission: in other words, to weather the pandemic without losing its deeper identity. By reconnecting to the mission of the company, it becomes easier to make decisions and maintain corporate social responsibility objectives at the heart of their strategy and business model.

The COVID-19 crisis puts everyone in unexpected and unfamiliar situations. Our instincts might force us to panic and make decisions that are dangerous for the business, but there is another option: keep calm and carry on doing what is right for the business for the long term.



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Laurence Duarte

Head of Strategy with innovation on the brain and a focus on creating safe and thriving business environments.