Liv McConnell
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Pie > cake.

As the world is adapting to what is now the “new normal,” Fairygodboss wants to be there for you every step of the way. Keep reading for timely advice and join our Navigating the New Normal group for continued support.

The pandemic is exposing the faults and inequities of so many American systems. Among those systems? The fact that, too often, we endorse and reward toxic behavior with positions of leadership

Crises can help create some leaders — and they can also bring out the worst in other existing (and toxic) ones. For a leader to do any of the following seven things right now, it means they’re decidedly in the latter camp. 

1. They’re laying off workers in inhumane ways.

Layoffs often can’t be avoided. But even if a company leader has no choice but to downsize their workforce, how they go about making those cuts is very much a choice. Out of the nearly 40 million workers who’ve lost jobs since COVID began, many report being subjected to inhumane layoff practices, like being forced to choose between pay and health benefits that should, in reality, be a standard severance offering. Others say they’ve been let go on massive, impersonal Zoom calls that lasted all of 2-7 minutes and left no room for asking questions. 

2. They’re using the pandemic as a cover for discrimination. 

It’s not just how unethical leaders are laying people off, but who they’re laying off. In April, the number of unemployed Americans over the age of 55 jumped to a startling 13.6 percent — when in March, this number had been only 3.3 percent. As COVID-related layoffs, furloughs and cuts to hours continue to be common, it’s possible that some opportunists are using the need to downsize as an excuse for unethically ridding themselves of older workers

“Age discrimination is real,” one woman wrote on FGB of her experience. “I was one of three employees terminated at the beginning of COVID-19, which was the reason given us for being let go. We were the oldest and most experienced in the office — two aged 63 and one aged 53.”  

3. They’re taking their stress out on their teams. 

Times are intense, and many of us are facing extreme stressors right now. But it’s not only a sign of poor management — it’s totally unethical for bosses to allow that stress to dictate how they communicate to their employees. While everyone has bad days, there are certain behaviors that aren’t OK and become even worse when acted out by a leader. As a manager, shaming your employees for wanting to use PTO when you yourself feel too busy to take off, just as one example, is a form of projecting your stress that isn’t acceptable. 

4. They’re continuing to receive bonuses. 

Many ethical leaders who’ve been forced to downsize their teams or reduce workers’ pay are similarly taking a hit to their own bank accounts, either through a reduction in salary or by forgoing perks like annual bonuses. Unethical leaders don’t see a need for this. Fortune highlighted one CEO, Ronald Rittenmeyer, who, in a letter to investors, wrote that he was forgoing three months of pay “in honor” of his company’s essential workers. Meanwhile, this pay cut hardly makes a dent in the CEO’s total yearly earnings — which include an annual bonus of $875,000 that Rittenmeyer is reportedly still receiving. When combined with stock awards, that means the amount of money Rittenmeyer actually forwent totals just 2% of what he made last year.

5. They’re micromanaging workers and demanding increased performance.

Again, to be contributing toward workers’ stress right now, in the middle of a global pandemic, isn’t just a poor management practice. It’s an unethical one. If you’re riding employees, suffocating them from afar in an effort to squeeze out as much productivity as you can from them, that isn’t OK. Humane leaders are showing their workers trust and support right now, and they understand that offering flexibility is key to helping workers protect their mental health. Asking a direct report to cough up an exact minute-by-minute play of everything they accomplished that day, in contrast, is doing the exact opposite. 

6. They’re calling their workers “heroes” — then disregarding their safety. 

Across the country, essential workers, many of whom are the sole providers for their families, have reported putting their lives on the line for “$11, $12 an hour, just to survive,” as one home health worker put it. Disproportionately, these low-wage essential workers are people of color and women. Whether they work in hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, laundromats or gas stations, one thing is certain: these are the people on the frontlines of a deadly virus. But the lack of protection they’re being offered by unethical leaders hardly acknowledges this. 

The Amazon-owned Whole Foods recently came under fire, for instance, for giving workers “hero” t-shirts. Meanwhile, those same workers say the company, which has reportedly generated record-breaking sales since COVID began, is prioritizing profits over their lives. It’s a criticism Amazon received well before the pandemic, but today the accusations — like denying paid sick leave to warehouse workers — feel particularly monstrous. 

7. Similarly, they’re treating return-to-work steps as a one-way conversation. 

While there are certain things your boss can (and can’t) make you do when the economy reopens, it shouldn’t be a question of “making” you do anything at all. The most ethical and humane leaders understand that workers should be presented with options and allowed as much agency as possible in the coming months. It’s unethical to force workers to take a step, like breaking what’s been considered a necessary social distancing measure, that they aren’t willing to take. None of us know what the next handful of months will bring, but as we hopefully continuing inching toward a new new normal, what that looks like must be a conversation between leaders and their teams.

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