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Avoiding Leadership Traps During a Global Pandemic

Strong management has always been important to an organization’s success, but some say it is even more important in today’s environment.[1] Now, there is no question senior leaders are busy dealing with the novel challenges 2020 has presented, such as dealing with sudden major economic shifts, managing a more flexible and remote workforce, and implementing policies to provide employee safety during a pandemic, but it is important not to fall into one of these leadership traps that can lead to headaches down the road. 

Not properly setting expectations for employees who are working remotely: It’s not too late if this fell down the priority list while you were scrambling to set up or expand remote working when the pandemic hit. Clear communication regarding expectations is key, so if you have not yet informed your team when and how they should be checking-in with you and others, begin to assess what is working well and what isn’t. If what you had previously communicated regarding remote work is not producing desired results, don’t hesitate to send out revised guidance. Flexibility and responsiveness are key, so it is not unusual to make adjustments in order to address shifting needs. With the knowledge you have gained regarding what works and what doesn’t for your organization, now is the time to start thinking about how your corporate policy regarding remote work might shift when things go back “to normal." Keep in mind that more than half of workers who shifted to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic have expressed a desire to work from home as much as possible going forward[2], so if your organization thrives on face-to-face interaction, be ready to explain this to your team and be prepared for some pushback and, potentially, attrition.

Not having a plan for handling complaints: All organizations need a process to ensure leadership quickly becomes aware of complaints - even when working remotely - and consistently takes appropriate action. Leaders need to keep in mind that sometimes very serious matters are raised in very informal ways. Both formal and informal complaints should prompt a quick acknowledgement and response, leading to fact-gathering, and some type of resolution. This doesn’t mean that the matter will necessarily be resolved quickly, but we have seen too many teams let the important day-to-day of their business create delays in addressing complaints. Addressing issues before a formal discrimination claim hits is less time-consuming and disruptive than waiting. Your organization may benefit from hiring a skilled third party investigator who can quickly devote the necessary resources to thoroughly investigate a complaint or consider an employee complaint hotline to supplement your traditional reporting process.

Failing to set the tone at the top: Many states now require employees to participate in annual anti-harassment training (e.g., New York State[3] requires annual training for all employees regarding sexual harassment). At EPS, we have the opportunity to see the different approaches organizations take when it comes to meeting training requirements. Some organizations go above and beyond; others fail to meet minimum requirements. Not surprisingly, we have learned that the tone from the top has an extraordinary impact, regardless of the approach taken. Having senior leaders who take training seriously and actively engage, directly impacts the team and the overall value of the training.

Failing to address performance issues: You are busy – managing your business, meeting client deadlines, effectively managing your resources – all during an unprecedented global pandemic. However, don’t give in to the urge to put performance issues on the back burner.[4] It’s tempting - the time spent coaching underperforming employees can add up.[5] However, replacing an underperforming employee is expensive and time-consuming.[6] It’s almost always better to take the time to address problems with an experienced employee directly. When dealing with a performance issue, managers need to be very clear on the specific behavior that needs to change, and help provide the necessary training and tools to address any skill deficiencies. The sooner issues are addressed, the better it is for all parties involved – the employee can focus on improvement, and, if an employee complaint is received, management will have documented already-existing performance problems that can help with claims of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. Consequences for failing to improve performance should be clearly communicated and implemented (e.g., performance improvement plans or written warnings). With the shift to remote-work, some employees may experience difficulties adjusting to the new paradigm. If the performance issues are new, check-in with the employee one-on-one to determine if they are challenged by new working arrangements and ask your employee what support they feel is needed to address their issues.

Failing to take action when performance does not improve: Sometimes, you've done everything you possibly could to provide feedback, support, and the specific actions required for the employee to succeed, and yet, nothing changes. It might be time to let an employee go. While this is often the least favorite part of a leader’s job description, knowing when to separate an employee, and doing it promptly and with compassion, is essential. Nothing impacts team morale as much as a poorly performing team member. While the risk of a potential discrimination suit is always present, having a well-documented file regarding how management addressed performance issues (in accordance with the advice in this article!) will help defend any potential litigation – and is simply good practice.

These time-tested strategies can help today’s leaders effectively manage the disruption caused by this global pandemic and even flourish, while better positioning organizations to handle future crises that may arise.

[1] Identifying trend of effectively managed companies, not just those with strong financials, being slower to resort to staff reductions between March and July 2020. Rick Wartzman and Kelly Tang, What Sets Some Companies Apart in the Current Crisis, The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2020. 

[2] COVID-19: A Leader’s Guide to Developing a Work-From-Home Strategy, Gallup, Incorporated, May 20, 2020,

[3] New York Consolidated Laws, Labor Law - LAB, §201-g.

[4] In 2019, Chief Executive Officers, presidents and chairpersons pointed out in a survey that their two biggest weaknesses as leaders was their failure to hold employees accountable and their reluctance to separate underperformers from their organizations. The CEO Benchmarking Report 2019, The Predictive Index, LLC, January 2019,

[5] More than 2,000 Chief Financial Officers working in major U.S. metropolitan areas estimated that 26% of a manager’s time is spent “coaching and/or supervising poorly performing employees.” Ripple Effect of a Poor Hiring Decision, Robert Half International, Inc., May 15, 2018,

[6] 2017 Human Capital Benchmarking Report, Society for Human Resource Management, December 2017,