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We Can Help Protect the Economy if We Protect Our People

March 24, 2020

Below is a blog from U.S. Chair and Senior Partner, PwC, Tim Ryan

In a shockingly short amount of time, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has pushed us into a global health, humanitarian and economic crisis. The virus has already taken a tremendous human toll, as people around the world worry about their health and safety, and the health and safety of their loved ones. And now, we are starting to see the economic fallout from COVID-19, which is also threatening the livelihoods of millions.

It is inspiring to see organizations and businesses jump into the fight against the novel coronavirus — working with federal, state and local governments and nonprofits to speed up testing, helping to ensure that food and medical supplies are getting to where they need to go, and deploying money and aid to keep our economy moving.

Although not every business can play a direct role in fighting COVID-19, there is a place for the leaders of most large companies — as well as their boards, investors, and other stakeholders — in addressing the most looming economic crisis related to the pandemic: The threat of the financial fallout from widespread unemployment. 

While this may seem like a daunting challenge right now, we will come out of this crisis. Already our world’s leading medical experts, scientists, and public health officials are tirelessly working on treatments, vaccines, and containment strategies. And, I believe that we, as a business community, can emerge from this crisis even faster if we work together. Specifically, I think we will emerge in better shape if we follow the guiding principle that we will do what we can to put people first by protecting their jobs and livelihoods. 

 Put simply, I believe that the best way for the business community to help is to do what we can to keep our people at work — virtually or otherwise — so they can continue to participate in the economy and support its rebound.  I understand the enormous weight on all of our shoulders. And, I know that many businesses are suddenly grappling with the remarkably difficult situation of trying to keep their business running and the lights on while also taking care of their employees.

My goals for PwC in the US are simple: To protect our people and continue to serve our clients. As we keep our business going and think ahead to a healthy, productive future on the other side of COVID-19, here are our guiding principles and initial actions:

  • Doing all that we can to keep people employed. We know our economy is consumer-led, and we don’t want to amplify an economic downturn by being blinded by the short-term. At PwC, we have adopted the principle that we will only consider laying off employees as a last resort. We are grateful that our people have adapted quickly to the ‘new normal’ of serving our clients remotely. Ultimately, we recognize that if we attempt to protect our profits this year by sacrificing our people, we may lose out both in the short and long run. As a nation, the more we lay off employees in an attempt to cut costs, the deeper we dig ourselves into an economic recession by kneecapping consumer spending. So, let’s keep our people paid and working - and if determined necessary, evaluate alternatives such as a reduced work week, temporary pay reductions and others. As a leader, I find comfort in knowing that the right thing to do and the most economically sound thing to do are one and the same in this case — and that is to keep our people at work who are performing, meeting expectations, and upholding our values. 
  • Remembering that it is understandable to miss our targets this year. The reality—whether we like it or not—is that pre-crisis targets have been overtaken by events that none of us could reasonably have anticipated. The goal is to now work with our Boards and educate fellow leaders and investors to pivot, recalibrate, and, wherever possible, adopt a longer-view attitude and perspective. At PwC, we have prioritized people over profits for 2020 and our leadership team and our Board agree that it is better to err on the side of keeping our people at work rather than trying to achieve short-term targets. Our feeling is that if this is going to be a hard year for people, it shouldn’t be a good year for profits, whether that ownership structure is one of a public or private company or a partnership. 
  • Support the humanitarian response by supporting communities. This pandemic is exacerbating existing societal problems from hunger to homelessness to access to quality healthcare and education. Now, more than ever, we must commit to helping those who are most vulnerable in our communities. Throughout history, companies have been a critical part of the communities we serve and stepped up when communities have been hit by devastation. The COVID-19 crisis has only underscored the important role that business has in supporting communities economically and philanthropically. Companies can work to fill the gaps and address needs by leveraging our people, resources and expertise. Many companies have already stepped up through charitable giving and changing their assembly lines to make critical medical equipment for healthcare workers and hospitals. Through the PwC Charitable Foundation, Inc. we have made grants to support access to food and education to children and families in need. We will also be providing pro bono services and money to help provide critical protective equipment and care essentials for healthcare workers on the frontlines as well as releasing our Digital Fitness Application for free to deliver digital upskilling content.

This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging situations we will ever face as leaders. What we are doing at PwC may not be what all business leaders are able to do, but I hope that during this troubled and uncertain time, my fellow business leaders will consider these guiding principles. If we can come together to put people first, we help millions of families, build trust in the business community, and ultimately make our economy stronger and more resilient. Simply, we will do better when we choose to navigate this together. And, having had the privilege of working with hundreds of CEOs across our country, I am very confident that, together, we will rise to the occasion.


This piece originally appeared in Accounting Today.

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