Having navigated the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic with a relatively low loss of life, Australians are hoping to return to a more familiar pattern of living.

For many of those Australians, they seek an illusion. The world to which they return will have been fundamentally altered – not by the virus – but by the decisions we have taken in response to its emergence.

At one point, we feared those decisions would be especially difficult for those working in a health system overwhelmed by infected patients. We imagined health care professionals confronted by the terrible dilemma of having to ration medical resources, deciding who should live or die. Fortunately we have largely been spared from that horror we imagined.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the worst of the ethical dilemmas associated with COVID-19 have been avoided. Rather, they have merely been displaced to another arena – the economy, and the world of work, in particular.

The devastation of the Australian economy has already claimed many victims – not least the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost (or are about to lose) their jobs once the JobKeeper ‘safety net’ is removed.

Those who join the unemployment queues or whose business collapse or whose opportunities dry up will pay the highest price for the choices we have made, so far.

However, there will also be a considerable burden borne by those who must make the terrible decisions about who keeps, or loses, their job during an extended recession – and by those who appear to have survived the crisis, seemingly unscathed.

Every organisation in Australia will be affected by COVID-19. A few will have prospered. However, most will be re-evaluating every aspect of their operations. It is our contention that those with the strongest ethical foundations are most likely not only survive the immediate crisis – but will emerge stronger.

This is not to suggest that the process of change will be easy … in fact, it will be incredibly difficult. However, there are three key insights that we believe will not only ‘limit the damage’ but actually set up organisations for a better future.

  1. Crises usually bring to light the ‘shadow values’ at work within an organisation: the fewer the better.

Values and principles inescapably shape our choices – and therefore the world they produce. Many organisations enter a situation of crisis with an established set of stated values and principles. However, a crisis can bring into the light an operative set of values and principles that may otherwise dwell in the ‘shadows’.

These ‘shadow’ values and principles often arise as a ‘mutation’ of the stated set. For the most part, the process of mutation is subtle – beginning with an initial act that is at first tolerated (often because it delivers a profitable outcome) and then accepted as ‘normal’. The process of drift is known as the ‘normalisation of deviance’ – and often proceeds without being observed for what it is: a corruption of the norms of the organisation. Occurring in the ‘shadows’ of an organisation’s culture, the mutations are genuinely ‘unseen’ and therefore resistant to correction.

The most common reason for shadow values and principles gaining a foothold during a crisis is that they are ready-made to fill the vacuum caused whenever ethics is reduced to being an ‘optional extra’, or regarded as a luxury that can only be afforded during easier times.

This weakening of commitment to an organisation’s espoused values and principles allows the shadow set to grow in strength.

One of the best examples is that of the German automaker, Volkswagen, where their stated value of ‘excellence’, was mutated into a shadow value of ‘technical excellence’. The resulting decisions led to an emissions scandal that has cost the company a small fortune in fines and severe reputational damage.
Identifying the risk of mutation of the ethical ‘DNA” of an organisation before it occurs, or if this is not possible, having the tools needed to recognise and correct shadow values and principles when they arise will be critical for organisations moving through this next period.

  1. Those who ‘survive’ a crisis may suffer the effects of ‘moral injury’ – leading to sub-optimal results for them personally (and their organisation) if the injury is not addressed.

Many people working in business and the professions have already been confronted by the need to make some distressing decisions – not least of which has been to weigh in the balance the good of the organisation versus the livelihood and well-being of employees.

In many cases, the people who lose their jobs will have been loyal and diligent employees who have performed their roles with distinction; roles that are either unaffordable during a recession or that no longer make sense in the emerging strategic environment where the risks posed by the virus are controlled but not eliminated.

Those who make necessary – but unfair – decisions will suffer a certain amount of personal harm from doing so. However, exposure to the risks of such decision making is generally understood to be part of the job. The greater risk is to those people who play no direct part in the decision making but who also feel that they are the inadvertent ‘beneficiaries’ of the sacrifices made by others.

There is much to be learned about this phenomenon by considering the experience of those who survive disasters like shipwreck. The first phase of the disaster will see strangers (and even rivals) driven to work together by the indiscriminate ‘lash of necessity’. People will bend themselves to the task of rowing towards safety – hopeful that a rescuer might be close at hand.

The second phase arises when the situation becomes more desperate … when rations are depleted, when the water is rising toward the gunwales of an overloaded lifeboat. It is then that some place their personal interests before those of all others – throwing overboard any sense of fellow-feeling. Yet, there will be others who decide that they will make the ultimate sacrifice – quietly slipping below the waves so that others survive.

Finally, the moment of rescue comes and the lash is withdrawn. It should be a time of celebration and euphoria. However, it is common for those who survive enter a stage of grief – because they have survived when others, each equally deserving, have not.

Moral injury’ is not only experienced by those who made the decision to sacrifice others, or who hoarded goods that could have helped others. The same injury is caused by those who remain without any reason to explain (or justify) their relative good fortune.

Telling any of these people that they should count themselves ‘lucky to have survived’ is worse than useless. Mere survival, as experienced by such people may be a welcome reality – but it is also an ‘empty achievement’ – and does nothing to protect against the consequences of untreated moral injury; which include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and in the most severe of cases, suicide.

  1. The best response to moral injury is to offer the opportunity to find meaning in adversity – a positive reason that justifies continuing effort.

There are only two ways to prevent moral injury. First, one can seek support when making the initial decisions so that, no matter how tough, they do not give rise to a form of regret and self-blame linked to a series of ‘if only’ statements (‘if only I had considered that perspective’, ‘if only I had thought of that option’, ‘if only I had asked one more question’ …).

Second, one can offer a purpose that transcends mere survival. It is only then that the sacrifice of others can be a source of positive motivation. Instead of individuals being beneficiaries, they become ‘stewards’ of a purpose that, if realised, will justify the sacrifices made by others.

Of course, the saving purpose must be something of real substance – not just a few words that make people feel good about themselves. The purpose must be non-trivial, enduring and deep, the kind that people can truly believe in.

However, there is a temporal ‘twist’ at this point. There’s not much point in having a purpose that will rescue an organisation from crisis if decisions made during the crisis render the purpose invalid or unbelievable.

The last thing you want is for those who survive to look back on their experience of crisis and conclude that all that went before makes the purpose seem to be a ‘hoax and the organisation’s leadership a group of hypocrites. That is why it is essential that organisations identify and manage any shadow values or principles that might undermine the better future it must create in the aftermath of the crisis.

In these circumstances, ethics is neither an ‘optional extra’ nor a ‘luxury’. It is a necessity!


The lesson in all of this is relatively simple

Those who wish to prosper in the aftermath of a crisis need to project themselves into the future and identify an underlying purpose that guides their decision making in the present.

Of course, it will be impossible to predict all of the details that define the strategic and tactical environment in which the organisation will need to operate. However, an organisation’s Purpose, Values and Principles (the three principal components of an Ethics Framework) should provide an enduring platform that is serviceable in all environments but one … where there is no genuinely useful role left for the organisation to perform.

Unless that exception exists, organisations and their leaders have an obligation not merely to persist, but to flourish for the sake of all those that made their continued survival possible.

The Ethics Centre is a world leader in assessing cultural health and building the leadership capability to make good ethical decisions in complexity. To arrange a confidential conversation contact the team at consulting@ethics.org.au. Visit our consulting page to learn more.