Doing business ethically in a time of coronavirus

06 April 2020

Tags: Corporate governance, Treatment of Employees

Our Chair, Prof. David Grayson CBE discusses doing business ethically in a time of coronavirus in the latest IBE blog.

A good friend of mine, Julia Cleverdon, has a great line that “leadership is like a tea-bag: you only find out how strong it is, when it is in hot water!” To leadership, we might add business ethics and purpose. 

The current coronavirus pandemic is testing all of us, as individuals, carers, health professionals, politicians and so. The crisis is putting enormous pressure on all sectors of society: public, private, academic, charities and voluntary organisations.

As the Institute of Business Ethics, the IBE supports the business sector. In the immediate crisis, there are some obvious points about doing business ethically. Such as taking decisions in line with the values and stated principles of the organisation; being authentic and true to the stated Purpose of the business; and acting in the long-term interests of the business and its stakeholders. If ever there was a time for businesses to apply the Golden Rule of the world’s great religions and philosophical traditions: “to do unto others, as you would have them do to you,” this is it. Business leaders that try to price-gouge and profiteer should rightly expect opprobrium. Well-resourced businesses that don’t make strenuous and sustained efforts to protect the incomes of their workers – especially the lowest paid – should not be surprised if they run into heavy flak. From Piers Morgan to the Financial Times Moral Money listing of Saints & Sinners, people are keeping a tally. My social media feeds are full of posts criticising what is regarded as unethical business practices.

Happily, I am also reading many comments on businesses behaving well, going the extra mile to support employees and vulnerable customers and suppliers. We are also seeing examples of creativity and rapid innovation as some businesses switch production to start making hand-gel and sanitisers and ventilators and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). 

Purpose-led businesses who do business ethically, need to make their voices heard. This will become even more important as societies start to debate post-crisis reconstruction. The film-maker Richard Curtis has coined the mantra #BuildBackBetter! It is a mindset that instinctively appeals to me – and I hope to IBE supporters. At the IBE we are keen to hear from our supporters and others about what “Build back better” might involve.

Judith Samuelson – Vice-President of the Aspen Institute based in the US – and executive director of the Aspen Institute Business & Society Programme – argues (and I strongly agree with her) “never waste a crisis” and that “Covid-19 is a chance for business leaders to rework their pact with society.” 

More broadly, businesses will need to be more proactive in building and maintaining ethical cultures. As detailed in IBE’s recent publication Ethics and Section 172 directors fulfilling their duties will indeed be doing this. The Section in the UK Companies Act 2006 provides a useful framework and reminder of how business should be done. It picks up on all the present challenges facing companies as they try to survive; try to support their employees; and try to support the community.

I agree! It is time for strong tea-bags!


Professor David Grayson CBE
Professor David Grayson CBE


David is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. From 2007-2017, he was director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Professor of Corporate Responsibility.

David became Chair of the Trustees Board on 01 April 2019.

He joined Cranfield in April 2007, after a thirty year career as a social entrepreneur and campaigner for responsible business, diversity, and small business development. This included founding Project North East which has now worked in nearly 60 countries around the world; being the founding CEO of the Prince's Youth Business Trust and serving as a managing-director of Business in the Community.

David has an Honorary Doctorate of Law from London South Bank University and was a visiting Senior Fellow at the CSR Initiative of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard (2005-10).

He has served on various charity and public sector boards over the past 30 years. These have included the boards of the National Co-operative Development Agency, The Prince of Wales' Innovation Trust and the Strategic Rail Authority. He chaired the National Disability Council and the Business Link Accreditation Board; in each case appointed by the Major Government and re-appointed by the Blair administration.

He is currently chairman of the national charity Carers UK championing the role of 6.5million Britons caring for a loved one. He is a former chairman of one of the UK's larger social enterprises and largest eldercare providers, Housing & Care 21 during which the organisation made corporate history by becoming the first-ever not-for-profit successfully to acquire a publicly quoted group of companies. David received an OBE for services to industry in 1994 and a CBE for services to disability in 1999.

David has written a number of books on responsible business and corporate sustainability including most recently: ‘All in - The Future of Business Leadership’ with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee. He is part of the faculty of the Forward Institute and of the Circle of Advisers for Business Fights Poverty

The Guardian has named David as one of ten top global tweeters on sustainable leadership alongside Al Gore, Tim Cook - CEO of Apple, and Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg

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