Brian Cavanagh CONSULTING

Duty of care to Board Members

What a difference a year makes. In the past, boardroom discussions about ‘duty of care’ would have focused on general staff welfare, ensuring a safe and secure working environment and specific policies around anti bullying and whistleblowing. The conversation has focused rightly on the responsibilities on the board as employers. And the last year has made that responsibility even more important.

Staff rightly expect their employers to ensure a duty of care throughout the pandemic, yet spare a thought for the decision makers in boardrooms# especially those in the SME and charity sector. After all, as board members we have a ‘duty of care’ to each other as well as our employees.

In many instances, board members have been faced with difficult choices. Concerns about viability and possible closures are being grappled with by boards up and down the country. These are not easy decisions, especially in organisations where board members know the staff and the impact of any layoffs and wage cuts on livelihoods. Speaking to several board members about this has brought out stories of sleepless nights and anxiety about the future. And whilst I am not advocating special treatment for board members, the reality is that to enable organisations to get through the pandemic, it needs boards members to be in the best possible place, able to make critical decisions.

From my own perspective, in January 2020, I became Chair of a dynamic and successful SME. Very quickly, plans for business development were subsumed into planning to survive the pandemic. I saw the toll it took on the owners and boards members as they worried about future and how they could reconcile giving guarantees to a loyal workforce, without knowing how long for.

My approach has been to speak to all board members on a weekly basis, to check in on how they are doing as well as discussing the business. It recognises that some differ from others in how they deal with stressful situations. Board members have got better at keeping in touch with each other outwith board meetings. It is a small board and a simple action to take.

We must not forget to look out for each other as board members. It can be harder to establish the informal contact that takes place after face-to-face meetings, yet it is crucial that we establish new rituals to provide solidarity and support. It can be a lonely place for board members, and you may be one of them facing difficult choices in a period of great uncertainty. Above all, we need to include fellow board members in our ‘duty of care’ responsibilities.

I would be interested to hear what experiences in providing a ‘duty of care’ for your board members over the last year. And why not share your experiences and develop a conversation with fellow board members