A Christian ethic of service and solidarity must be an important feature of the business response to the coronavirus epidemic and its economic impact, Catholic business educators have said.
For Karel Sovak, associate professor in the University of Mary’s Gary Tharaldson School of Business, two of the biggest skills that business can bring to recovery efforts are self-awareness and empathy.
“A business needs to help the community identify who they are, which may have been lost during this time of stay at home,” he told CNA. “Businesses need to help communities focus on what makes it viable in the first place, which are the people. Business can be used as a force for good only if they understand what that ‘good’ means. Being aware of those strengths can help transform a community as they seek to overcome any devastating tragedy, natural or otherwise.”
He cited the symbolic unity and mutual support shown by individuals and businesses, whether by showing hearts in windows, purchasing gift cards for businesses, or taking meals to essential personnel.
Over 75,000 deaths are attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., with over 1.25 million confirmed cases, John Hopkins University said Thursday. Efforts to prevent the spread of infection led to public officials’ orders to close businesses, with the exception of some businesses deemed essential services.
Millions of people have been left unemployed due to the closures, while those with essential jobs worry that their places of employment are newly dangerous.
Sovak emphasized the importance of trust as a business skill, but noted that low trust and polarization were problems even before the epidemic. Community is about bringing people into communion, and business has a role to play in that community building.
“Business can reassure families, non-profits and churches that they are there for them. Solidarity is the word that comes to mind when determining how to establish trust,” he said. The social and spiritual nature of the human being means people will need to come together once again “to use the gifts God gave to each person to meet the needs of others.”
Laura Munoz, associate professor of marketing at the University of Dallas’ Satish and Yasmin Gupta College of Business, said her business school emphasizes both a skill-based and a virtue-based education that can help respond to the crisis.
Business professors aim to help students become resilient and adaptable. They must become critical thinkers “aware of multiple stakeholder perceptions in an ethical way,” she told CNA. These skills can also help in the service of others, as in the case of a business student who used her business skills to fund raise for an Argentine orphanage on social media.
“Yes, skills are needed but they cannot come if the ‘business person’ is not aware of the needs of the environment and does not have love, charity, for others,” said Munoz. “Businesses that acknowledge that serving a community is give and take, not just take, will probably receive more community support as well.”
For Sovak, Catholic business education focuses on virtues, “servant-leadership,” and upholding the tenets of Catholic social teaching.
“There is no proof that any instruction can adequately prepare anyone, let alone young minds, for such a large-scale disruption as this pandemic has caused,” he said. However, teaching students the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance is a good path in both strong economies and in economic downturns.
Such an education helps students “to understand that life is not about them; it is about serving others who are in need, which is what we are called to do.” Students should be prepared “to recognize their vocation is more than a job and they are called to greatness, ‘magnanimity,’ especially in dire times.” This helps them to “focus less on self and more on the situation at hand” and to bring about “true humility.” This path helps students be optimistic and trusting in innovative ways and help contribute to solutions
“Life is full of disruptions, simply because we can’t predict the future,” Jay Wesley Richards, assistant research professor at the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, told CNA. “I think two of the most important business skills are simply virtues. One is courage—which means you’ll act even if you might fail. The other is resilience or anti-fragility—which means you learn from disruption and failure. The pandemic, and more precisely, the shutdown in response to it, is a historic and massive disruption. But disruption itself is part of life.”
Richards said one of his classes this semester had been discussing looming disruptions from technology and “the need to develop virtues and skills that humans will always do better than machines.”
“The discussion was mostly abstract until spring break, when the semester itself was disrupted by the pandemic shutdown, and we had to move online,” he said. “Suddenly, we were using disruptive (if imperfect) video-conferencing technology! At that point, students started asking more questions about disruption in the economy.”
Economic downturns in the business cycle are a standard topic in business education. Munoz said a pandemic is one of many possibilities taught through case studies, role playing, business planning, and discussions.
“We focus on going beyond a disruption and thinking ‘so what? How do we continue?’”
“Instead of the business coming to a stop, we think: ‘and what else can we do? How else can we do it?’” she said.
Michael Welker, an economics professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, reflected on the need for creativity given the conditions of a pandemic event.
“Such an event, in our lifetimes, is one that is unprecedented, complex, and so widespread, that there is a need for courage, openness to failure, iteration of ideas and experiments, and a need for management decisions to frame their enterprise cultures to engender this powerful way that human beings image the Creator,” Welker said.
Efforts to re-open businesses and other social venues, including places of worship, have come to be the focus of debate, planning, and activity.
Welker said the focus on “restarting the economy” means a focus on “a critical aspect of human life--a prudent and wise engagement with the world in many dimensions.” These dimensions include work, leisure, community, worship, and recreation. He suggested any approach to “restarting” the economy should take place in a context that recognizes “the great dignity of work” with the added sense of “the essential things, which are beyond just ‘making a living’.”
“This disruption has brought much multi-dimensional damage to people,” he said. “I believe authorities are attempting to walk the fine line between a serious and known risk and the need to get people into ‘normal’ living and acting, with the heightened concerns for safety and health.”
Sovak said that while there was indeed economic disruption, in part the economy “never really stopped.” Consumers continued to purchase, many people found different ways to trade, and the government infused additional money seeking a positive impact.
“If we are discussing how to get people back into the mix of work, travel, or play, again, much of that never stopped with work at home, it just got more creative,” he said.
At the same time, Sovak said that a too cautious approach to re-opening business will mean many businesses close, unable to adapt to the coronavirus epidemic.
There is also another risk.
“The risk of being too reckless means this thing (the epidemic) will come back around in a couple of months and bring about an even more devastating grind to the economy,” he added. “Again, the virtue of prudence comes to mind on how to tell what the times call for.”
“This isn’t a one-size fits all solution – what is controllable and what is predictable will be two ways to view the danger,” Sovak continued. “How much certainty does one have in the situation? The more certainty there is, the less risk and easier the decision that can be made.”
Richards similarly said there is no one right answer for a business response.
“Every business will have specific, even unique challenges, depending on where it is and what it does,” he said. “But the same general rules apply for businesses as for everyone else: Treat every person with respect and dignity, and that includes employees and customers.”
“It’s a serious mistake to present the current debate as if it were between the ‘economy’ on one side, and ‘lives’ on the other,” Richards said. “We should care about the economy precisely because we care about human lives and well-being. Really families, real companies, employers, and employees. Real lives.”
Richards cited the massive unemployment in recent weeks. The unemployment rate was at an historic low of 3.5% in February. Since mid-March, 33.3 million people have filed unemployment claims, making the unemployment rate higher than 20%, BBC News reports.
“There’s no such thing as a zero-risk option this side of the kingdom of God,” Richards continued. “Any challenge, like the coronavirus, involves a multi-side risk: Lives were at stake no matter what path we took,” he said. “The path of wisdom lies in understanding what the real risks are, and how likely various outcomes are. Only then do we have much chance of responding so that the benefits are greater than the costs.”
In the coronavirus epidemic, policymakers face the challenge of making “far-reaching decisions without having very good information to work with.”
“A response that puts 30 million people out of work isn’t just an economic inconvenience. It leads, and will lead, to loss of life and well-being,” said Richards. “The president understood this from the beginning. This is why he worried on Twitter that the ‘cure’ not be worse than the ‘disease’.”
“The question we will be asking for the next several years is this: Did the government response, and in particular, the shutdown of businesses and shelter-in-place orders for healthy people, save more lives than, in the long run, it will have cost?”
Sovak told CNA there are signs that tell whether a business mentality is dominating a discussion or or being neglected. When there is “negativity, pessimism or placing blame,” a conversation is likely headed in a wrong direction, whether a business community is being criticized or is offering criticism.
“Business certainly can’t solve every issue or does it have all the answers; however, there can be many benefits in taking a business approach to address any situation,” he said.
At the same time, a business analysis may not appeal to many, given the human cost.
“People are acting on emotion more today than facts and reason. Thirty million people are unemployed – putting a business touch on that doesn’t help that situation,” Sovak said. “Supply and demand means prices will rise, and inflation will come about but that doesn’t mean we have to bring that approach into the conversation when many people’s lives have been disrupted both financially and health-wise. This is where empathy has to come into play.”