The Risks and Ethical Issues in Reopening Workplaces
Navigating the effects of COVID-19 pandemic is among major problems facing many boards of management in South Africa. To sustain workplace activities at the same time evade the ethical issues and risks to employees, many firms have to adapt to fresh means of operations when reopening the workplaces and welcoming employees back to the factories, stores, offices, and other facilities that have been relatively empty for a couple of months. Amidst increasing economic turmoil, organizations’ boards of management are progressively fortified in their view. Boards of directors bear the major duty of steering their workplaces through this distraction. Therefore, it is up to them to define when and how to begin the difficult responsibility of reopening workplaces once the government lifts the restrictions. To achieve their critical oversight obligations, boards of directors should be aware of risks and ethical issues associated with reopening as they map a path to deliver their employees from the pandemic to recovery. The board of directors will; therefore, act as an instrumental sounding team for organization—and also allow them to address the concerns of welcoming the employees back to the workplaces. Corona virus has resulted in grave workplace problems, as managers have to reform their employees in light of governmental stay-at-home guidelines and the pandemic. Conversely, as those guidelines are loosed and most of the workers start returning to the workplaces, a fresh set of considerations and challenges must be handled. Thus, it significant for boards of directors across South Africa to institute a return-to-work strategy different from their workforces and businesses, being attentive to and safeguarding compliance to the obligations and legal duties of employers.
2. Risks that the boards of directors have to deal with in reopening workplaces
The board of directors has a legitimate responsibility to put in place and check the reopening process to warrant safe working environment in the workplace insofar as rationally useful. In almost every South African jurisdiction, there is a constructive duty on the board of directors to implement due diligence with regard to workplace health and safety. According to Vaughen (2015), to adhere to the ideal workplace health and safety laws, business have to pinpoint risks, and put in place what is rationally feasible to reduce those risks, or where this is not sensibly attainable, to reduce these threats. Whereas the safe workplace in South Africa is mainly dependent of the board of management, to make sure directors can fulfil due diligence responsibilities, the directors should implement a risk and compliance management system to check how the firms are warranting submission with the guidance and eradicating risks associated with COVID-19 as far as practically achievable. Particularly, each territory and province has its workplace safety and health regulations. Therefore, organizations should monitor the laws in the related jurisdiction to understand the recommended advice in addressing the return to work process and the aftermath of COVID-19.
2.1 Health and safety
The safety and health of employees must the board of director’s top priority as it takes in how to bring back to normal of operations. This is, certainly, an ethical, legal, and moral fear for every workplace c. Thus, from the business viewpoint, protecting workers’ safety is vital since no plan to reopen workstations can be successful devoid of them. Workers are relying on the board of directors to help them work in a safe environment. The board of directors have to ensure compliance with and understand local and WHO guidelines as limitations are lifted. Because these guidelines differ by location and perhaps will not be loosened uniformly, the managements need to design a variety of situations centered on where mission-critical work occurs. As shown by Hu & Huang (2020), the COVID-19 pandemic can produce risks to psychological and physical well-being through workplace exposure risk or modifications in work or responsibilities due to of the disease. Thus, the board of directors need also, as far as is rationally feasible, safeguard employees’ health and ensure the community is not exposed to psychosocial safety and risk risks that originate from the workplace.
2.2 Essential workers with hidden health conditions
A study carried out by Thompson (2010), highlights the problems employees with underlying health issues encounter when requesting for adjustments that enable them to remain functioning effectively at the same time sustaining their health. This is particularly the situation for employees living with chronic health disorders that have impact on severity, those new to their jobs, vulnerable groups, as well as young workers. In the present economic and health predicament caused by COVID-19, failure of those individuals to request for conducive accommodation creates a hypothetically grave threat to their safety and health, as well as the long-run occupation, of individuals with underlying health issues in the staff. These are frustrating periods, and from various perspectives, boards of management are trying their best level to have indispensable services running whereas protecting the safety and health of employees. As the boards of directors carry on to steer the way forward and create return to work strategies, they have the duty to recognize that there are some employees with underlying health conditions, such as HIV/AIDS and other chronic illness who may be unenthusiastic to request for help.
2.3 Mental illness and employees fears
There is risk of preexisting mental disorders being aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic i.e. obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. Employees with these conditions may need a practical accommodation, as they cannot decline to resume working owing to garden-variety anxiety and fear. According to Dyreborg (2011), under the OSH Act, workers may only decline working if they are certain that they are in “imminent danger.” As a concrete issue, it is improbable that a stay-at-home directive may be removed even if corona virus still poses a direct risk to employees’ health and safety.
2.4 Pregnant Employees
The boards of management are not expected to welcome back pregnant workers because of possibly higher threat of problems resulting from COVID-19. Conversely, under some local and provincial acts, for instance the Human Rights Law, Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Pregnancy Disability Leave Law, and Fair Employment and Housing Act the boards of directors have the duty to employ an interactive procedure with expectant workers to decide a reasonable and effective approach to consent the employees to deliver their services in the workplaces while undergoing a pregnancy-related situations. Additionally, as illustrated by Harris (2020), pregnant workers may be regarded as vulnerable persons under the reopening South Africa again rules, and may be acclaimed to stay at home through some phases of reopening the workplaces.
3. Ethical issues that the boards of directors have to deal with in reopening workplaces
3.1 Accountability: public consultation, trust, and fair procedures
Even though there is consent regarding equity and efficiency as an essential ethical standard for setting priority, this won’t remove moral struggle. Equity and efficiency may clash in many ways, and furthermore, the values themselves may be comprehended in diverse manner. Considering these contention and the severe effect on the health of many, it is vital that resolutions concerning importance are trustworthy and legitimate. According to Nedlund & Baeroe (2014), creating restrictions to health care may only be genuine if decisions to limit are arrived at on centered on reasonable and fair measures. In a pandemic, anger and panic may challenge trust in the workplace, which can result in further issues at the workplaces. Therefore, fair and clear measures that also support employee validation of guidelines may be helpful in preventing employee resistance and sustaining trust to some degree, although the likelihood of responsibility during the reopening process seems limited.
3.2 Establishing guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment
The boards of directors may also wish to contemplate on creating strategies for use of PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), including gloves and face masks, checking visitors and employees’ temperature prior to entering the place of work, and creating guidelines managing when workers may come back to work after full recovery from COVID-19. Considering the commonness of mobile devices, it is probable to employ technology to communicate with workers and contact trace those who may have been exposed to the virus and are require to quarantine themselves. Every time procedures such as these are being deliberated, but, it is significant to ensure procedures are primed to protect employees’ personal information.
3.3 Privacy of employees’ health status
Given that social distancing has now become the norm, there are genuine issues about who has the COVID-19 virus, and who is infected comprising those are asymptomatic. Consequently, most of the board of directors have to test the returning employees, or else assess their health conditions. A similar approach may be applicable to vendors and contact tracing who visit the workplaces, whether a retail outlet, a law firm, or a medical facility. Whereas many directly consider the HIPAA as a regulation to manage these concerns, it is merely applicable to a barely clear set of "Covered Entities” (Klich-Heartt & Prion, 2010). Even though HIPAA may not be applicable to majority of board of directors or workplaces, there are still confidentiality concerns of which businesses need to be aware. Thus, to properly evade concerns about invasion of privacy, possible discrimination, or otherwise, organizations have to be regular in evaluating workers' health status prior to welcoming them back to workplaces, and moving onward for the pandemic duration.
4. How the structure of the Board facilitate or impedes the effective handling of the risk and ethical issues
The traditional indulgent of board structure is through the model of perception-and-equality, both by plans, for instance affirmative action - trying to choose from minority groups - and by a numbers-centered method where figures are the main approach. There are some other facets that require contemplation, in evaluating how board structure is categorically. Board gender, size, and level of education, board independence, and size act as determinants of effective handling of the risk and ethical issues (Pangestuti, Takidah & Anggraini ZR, 2019). Besides, it is commonly presumed that a firm’s handling of the risk and ethical issues is mostly influenced by it board’s structure. It is not essential to recognize board practices as effective handling of the risk and ethical issues may be based on their demographic features. Certainly the breakdown of the structure of the board is vital as a stipulation for ethical operation of companies rather than integrating board processes, performance, and attributes.
In the context of recent corporate failures, the focus on the appropriate composition of board of directors that would efficiently manage corporate resources and give the management access to valuable and independent information to cope with the complexity of strategic choices to run the firms successfully is of great importance. According to Pangestuti, Takidah & Anggraini ZR, (2019), the relationship between structure of the board and effective handling of the risk and ethical issues is intricate; thus, it is difficult to establish the optimum board structure that can positively impact ethical governance at the workplace. Therefore, the effect of board structure on ethical governance varies depending on the specific characteristics of the company in question or even the country in which the company operates. Having a large board size becomes advantageous given the wide range of information that the board successively holds and as a result bigger boards facilitate the effective handling of the risk and ethical issues.
By the time the board of directors are ready to reopen their workplaces in South Africa, their crisis-management teams headed by top directors and braced by strategic team need to meet and discuss about the possible risks and ethical concerns associated with reopening and welcoming employees back for some time. Managements need to ensure they get the information they need to understand the execution and progress of management’s reopening approach. When and how organizations will welcome back employees may have long-term effects for the organizational culture. Through recognizing the risks and ethical concerns, boards will take a vital and effective duty in managing the strategies to reopen the workplaces in South Africa. Therefore, giving the workers an opportunity to share their concerns and challenges may assist management teams to pinpoint possible risks and ethical concerns with their workplace reopening plans. By supporting genuine, two-way communication, the board of directors can transform the COVID-19 predicament into an opening of strengthening business culture, increase loyalty and productivity, and intensify employee engagement in the long run.
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Harris, J. (2020). Reopening Under COVID-19: What to Watch For. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.3594957
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