Election 2020: Counting Down the Anxiety

This week's vote may be only the beginning of a long period of uncertainty for corporate chiefs and employees.

We’re familiar with the usual drill. Every four years, months of intense campaigning lead up to Election Day. Then there’s a late night that’s over by midnight, or the next morning at latest. The drama is over, and everyone can go back to work fully focused. But this is 2020: somehow, few believe the Biden–Trump battle for US president will look quite like that.

As if COVID hasn’t already stirred up one uncertainty after another, now experts say that, barring a major surprise, the country won’t be waking up next Wednesday to an agreed-upon election result. Indeed, ballot disputes and court rulings on the election—along with congressional maneuvering—could drag on for weeks, if not through year’s end.

That could leave corporate leaders with their hands full. Budgets affected by tax policies will be largely guesswork; and companies reliant on trade or the federal government for business contracts could be stuck in limbo. And then there is issue of employee anxiety and serious distractions. “Everyone is emotional,” says Audra Bohannon, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who consults on diversity and inclusion. “They are sitting in a place of uncertainty and they are overwhelmed with that uncertainty.”

Of course, a landslide victory by either candidate would reduce a lot of the uncertainty. But with mail-in voting so prevalent this year, so-called battleground states could take weeks of counting and recounting votes, leading up to various court challenges. The 2000 election wasn’t settled until mid-December of that year, when the US Supreme Court settled a dispute over vote counts in Florida. This time around, however, some analysts fear that results could be contested well past December 14, when members of the Electoral College cast their votes, or even January 6, 2021, when the electoral votes are counted by Congress.

Most industries can adjust to changes in government relatively smoothly, and trade policies have been in flux for years at this point, so many companies have gotten used to ambiguity there. But whoever is elected president likely has big changes in mind for certain industries. “There will be sectors hanging on, not making plans until they know who the president is and who controls the Senate,” says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader of the firm’s Organizational Strategy practice. In particular, sectors such as energy and construction, two areas whose futures are heavily tied to government policies and contracts, could be where plans are delayed the longest.

Meanwhile, experts say corporate leaders may well underestimate how anxious some of their colleagues are going to feel during a prolonged post-election period—and how that may affect operations. Anxiety has been on the rise for people across color and gender boundaries, of course, but the percentage of non-Whites who say they are anxious or depressed has increased at a faster rate, according to a US Census Bureau survey. During client engagements over the past month, several Korn Ferry partners say “hope” has been a common refrain among Whites, while “concern” is more common among employees of color. “Pain, particularly Black pain, is so intense right now. The managers say they had no idea,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global diversity and inclusion strategist and coauthor of the new book The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders: Unleashing the Power of All of Us.

Experts say there are a few things that leaders can do in the coming weeks to help alleviate some of the sense of helplessness that their employees—and maybe they themselves—feel. That includes acknowledging the obvious. “Silence is not an option. Do something—at least say ‘I don’t know what to say,’” Bohannon says. She also says leaders should encourage their employees to take breaks, whether it’s a few minutes between calls or a couple of hours before or after work. “You’re not helping anyone if you’re running on fumes,” Bohannon says.

For his part, Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and executive development, says even after the election has settled, private-sector leaders likely won’t have made all the anxieties of their own employees go away. There’s still the pandemic, struggling economy, and racial unrest. But he says the small things leaders do now can make a huge difference. “Great leadership converts anxiety through appreciation and transforms problems via purpose,” he says. “Anxiety injures. Purpose inspires.”