From pandemic to war – how can business do the right thing?

Just when we thought that we were leaving the worst part of the pandemic behind us, just when some of us hoped that we could now turn our attention to the existential threat from climate change, just when we thought that some sort of normality could return, the world was turned upside down. Russia invaded Ukraine and Europe will never be the same. The unthinkable has happened. Again. And again, people are suffering beyond what anybody should have to experience. This time, however, the torment is directly caused by human intention – ill intention.

This raises several questions, ranging from what we can and should do as individuals to almost philosophical ones on how to navigate a world where we every day could wake up to a completely new reality. For business, it means that plans and strategies must be revisited, and it reframes the question of what it means to be a responsible company.

These past days we have all been able to witness the devastating effects of the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Getting messages from friends and business colleagues in Ukraine, but also in Russia, reinforces the image of a horrible war decided by a few people – one person?!

My first inclination has been to ask myself what I could do as an individual to provide support. But we should also reflect on what we can do as businesses. To be able to answer this question, we must somehow find a way of navigating this new reality.

Considering the atrocities currently taking place, terms such as agile organisations, robustness and blue sky thinking all seem pale; most people and groups of people – such as companies – are unprepared when the world as we know it is disrupted. The black swans tend to be much bigger, much faster and much darker than we were able to imagine.

Just as we had to ask ourselves how to sustain business in the pandemic – and what it meant to be responsible, we now must rethink our strategy, plans and our impact in relation to the war: How will our business be affected? Our employees? Our suppliers? Our customers? Will we be able and allowed to buy and or sell as before? And do we want to? Are our longer-term plans still valid? Do we risk contributing, directly or indirectly, to harm and human suffering by our actions? Or by our non-action?

It is of course impossible to make a complete list of questions and recommendations for business. A risk and rethinking exercise, however, seems like a necessary step:

  1. Map the changed reality. List as many of the factors that have changed as possible, ranging from physical harm to people to economic sanctions and negative sentiments.
  2. Identify affected business partners and other stakeholders. This entails own employees, employees of suppliers/clients, and local communities where you have operations.
  3. List and assess key risks to business and to stakeholders – short and longer term. This requires scenario thinking. Nobody knows how this horrible war will end.
  4. Draft and implement actions and decisions to sustain (and develop) the business as well as to avoid harm and do what you can to contribute positively.

This last part – how to support – should not be underestimated. This is not only the right thing to do, but also a way of protecting the very condition that allow companies to survive and thrive.

These are a few of the many possibilities to consider:

  • Life and health. Can you help relocate employees in the conflict area? Can you help provide food, shelter material and medical supplies? How can you allow employees to do volunteer work during working hours (and maintain salary)?
  • Economics. Can you keep employees on the payroll or ensure that they are provided income by other means, even though they, as a consequence of the war no longer are needed at work? How can you support your suppliers and customers that are affected by the invasion? Remember that this may stretch far beyond Ukraine. Business all over Europe will be disrupted in different ways. How much money can you contribute with directly? Help organisations such as the Red Cross, UNICEF and Save the Children are depending on donations.
  • Products and services. Is there something that your company can contribute with based on your area of business? In so many sectors – logistics, automotive, life science, ICT, food and agriculture, apparel, there are possibilities to make a difference through your products and services. Also in other industries, such as marketing and communication and finance, there are ways to support using your special skills and resources.
  • Leverage. What can you do to use your communication channels and your contacts to spread information about the atrocities and suffering, and influence others do the right thing? Business partners? Employees? Politicians?

This is about more than doing the right thing today. It is about being on the right side of history. We must meet ill intention by good intentions turned into action.

Swedish author Astrid Lindgren put it so well in her book The Brothers Lionheart:

Jonathan told me how there are things you have to do, even if they are dangerous.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because if you don’t you are not a human being, you’re nothing but a little louse,” Jonathan replied.

Please comment and provide suggestions on how to make the list(s) above more tangible.

Finally, a note to my many Russian friends: You know how much I appreciate not only you, but Russia, Russian culture and not the least Russian music. I know that many of you are completely against this war. My anger and frustration over what is happening right now is not directed against Russia, it is directed at The Kremlin and the decisions taken by president Putin.

Companies in Sweden should join the initiative “Business for Ukraine” launched by Amanda Jackson and Tommy Borglund. It gives the Swedish business community an opportunity to stand up for democracy and freedom. Donate to the Red Cross Sweden bankgiro account 900-8004, campaign code 2022516 or use Swish 1230973636.

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