MBA students issue a sincere plea to Fortune 500 CEOs: “Your decisions today matter.”
As the COVID-19 crisis developed, we began hearing stories from front-line workers in our communities about the fear they felt when going to work. Many of these workers are our grandmothers, neighbors, and friends. What saddened us most was that their voice was not being heard. For better or worse, we—as MBA students—do have a platform and an opportunity to lift their voice.
We wrote this letter because we wanted corporate leaders to know that, as MBA students, we cared about their leadership during the present COVID-19 crisis. We will send this letter to the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies to show our collective belief that they have the resources to give all employees, especially those who are more vulnerable, the dignity they deserve.
On March 10, Valeria returned from the cleaning products aisle, visibly shaken. As she was replenishing the shelves for others, a customer had unleashed a tirade of abuse, mistakenly accusing her of hoarding the toilet paper. She was frustrated, but this moment was lowest on her list of worries.
Valeria—a 64-year-old front-line Walmart employee in Georgia—had yet to receive any guidance from management regarding COVID-19, two months after the first U.S. diagnosis. Her diabetes put her at high risk of becoming very sick from the virus. Yet, Valeria knew, if she missed work, she would accumulate “points” that could lead to her getting fired.
Valeria’s story has become common in large corporations across the country. Although Walmart has offered its employees unlimited unpaid days off through April, most cannot afford to forgo wages, leaving them unprotected and uninformed about the risks they face.
As Fortune 500 CEOs, you face urgent, difficult choices. You must set the tone for the corporate world’s collective response to COVID-19 by caring foremost for those closest to home—your employees. Doing so will strengthen long-term financial performance, investor support, customer loyalty, and future employee engagement. More importantly, it is the moral imperative in times of crisis.
WHAT LEADERS CAN DO
Put your employees first now. Retain them, re-deploy them if needed, and most importantly, pay them. Communicate routinely, candidly and, if possible, daily. Reduce your own wages before reducing theirs. If you must lay off employees, extend their health coverage and cover their premiums.
Many executives have already shown courageous leadership during this crisis. CEOs from Alaska Air, Lyft, and GE are foregoing or donating their salaries; Starbucks has committed to paying all workers for 30 days, regardless of whether they are able to come to work; Best Buy announced it would continue to pay all of its employees through April 18, even as its stores are closed except for order pickups.
NO ORDINARY RECESSION
With lives and livelihoods on the line, it matters to our collective health and safety how we care for our most vulnerable. Front-line workers are the heroes of this crisis, keeping the nation supplied with food, medicine, gasoline, information, and more. Provide them with employment policies that ensure their protection, safeguarding not only their own well-being but also that of the public they serve.
The stakes for corporate decision-making have never been higher. By allocating $500 billion to corporations and keeping borrowing rates low, our government has passed the baton to corporate leadership. Now, it is your turn to prove to America that capitalism can be resilient in the face of an extended lockdown. It is your turn to show that managers and CEOs can leverage their influence and resources to benefit their own front-line employees, for whom a $1,200 stimulus check is no safety net.
We don’t take our ask lightly. Any additional cost is daunting while company survival is at stake. Yet the cost of inaction is higher. Choices made today will define your reputation—both now and in the future.
Prospective employees will ask: “Did your company do all it reasonably could to protect the health, safety, and security of your customers and employees?” Institutional investors who already demand adherence to high environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards, will be particularly attuned to how you treat employees during this pandemic.
Employees will pay back the care and compassion they are shown. MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Zeynep Ton’s book The Good Jobs Strategy draws a direct line from the value of employee engagement, training and compensation to long-term financial performance. Even in the best of times, customers reward organizations that do right by their employees. Given the uncertainty of tomorrow, doubling-down on supporting your people today is the best way to serve all of your organization’s stakeholders.
The end of Valeria’s shift brought her peace of mind, albeit temporarily. Her choice to show up each day was a perilous trade-off between health and financial stability. With few employment alternatives, she knew voluntarily leaving her job was risky. But to what extent was her employer putting her life and that of her elderly husband in danger?
Bold leadership in moments of crisis can inspire millions. Your employees need timely information, sustainable compensation, meaningful sick leave policies, and healthcare even if temporarily furloughed.
Support your staff. Valeria needs you. We all do.
1000+ MBA students and counting from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Sloan, Booth, Haas, Kellogg, Darden, Anderson, Yale, Stern, Tuck, Ross, Duke, Tepper, and many more.
Amy Villaseñor, Sarika Mendu, and Steve Moore (MBAs ’20) are three second-year students at HBS. Collectively they have experience in both the public and private sectors but their greatest similarities lie in the impetus for this letter.