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The Ethics Coach on Crisis Management

How to run a business during a state of emergency.
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Q: I live in a city where major flooding recently created a state of emergency. A large part of my business is sales. What is the most appropriate way to run my business during a time of crisis?

A: There's no "business as usual" during emergencies. If your product is relevant to the crisis at hand, focus on appropriate ways to connect people with your services that won't make you seem like an opportunist. For nonessential tools or services, develop a crisis-management plan that outlines the way your sales team should operate in the event of a disaster. Either way, keep in mind that even if part of your sales territory was left unscathed by flooding or a tornado, your area customers might be distracted by worries for nearby friends and family. Be sensitive to that.

During a crisis, the actions of your company's leaders can demonstrate a genuine interest in com-munity involvement--the idea that you're concerned with more than sales. Put technology to work to check in on employees, vendors, suppliers and customers to make sure they're OK or to see how you can help. Consider loaning your company's resources--trucks, warehouse space, technology, even the sales team--to assist the Red Cross or other organizations. Emergency situations can bring out the best in businesses and help you build a solid reputation as a neighbor people trust.

Q: Several people in my professional network eagerly referred potential customers to my startup. I think that's very thoughtful. But after one of the referrals signed on with me as a client, the do-gooding buddy who introduced us asked for a cut. Do I have to pay him?

A: Your "buddy" should have been upfront about his expectations. He's clearly a good business-client matchmaker, but his decision to ask for an after-the-fact kickback is unethical. On your end, paying a kickback invites a host of unnecessary problems. If your new client ever found out, it would erode trust, taint your relationship and make it seem like your startup needs to buy introductions.

Don't make the payoff, but explain your reasons for turning down the request. Fill in your friend (and I use the word lightly) on your usual ways of thanking people for referrals, whether it's a handwritten note, dinner or a promise to reciprocate in the future. Give him the chance to explain why he expected a cut. Does he usually tell people about his expectation for a cash gift? Have other business owners sent an envelope his way?

Then you need to decide whether you wish to keep him in your professional network (and your life). Your network reflects on your brand. Could you trust him if you were to refer him to your contacts? It's pretty clear that his behavior caught you off-guard; perhaps you don't know him as well as you thought you did.

The problem you experienced raises the question of what reciprocity means to each of the people in your network. What motivates their referrals? For example, you attributed the eagerness of people offering you referrals to thoughtfulness, so you were blindsided by the kickback request. Use this experience as an opportunity to pay closer attention to the people you include in your network and to understand their expectations of your relationship.