The coronavirus might have upended the concept of the best companies of the year

April 7, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

When we make it through this unprecedented time, it might be a bit harder to define the “top companies” of 2020. In light of an unforeseen pandemic wreaking havoc across entire industries, measuring companies based on criteria like profits or shareholder returns just won’t feel right. Analysts predict that this year, the most important metric of corporate stewardship will be how a company responded to COVID-19.

“I expect it to be the defining criteria for business performance in 2020,” says JUST Capital founding CEO Martin Whittaker.

JUST Capital is a nonprofit founded by hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones that works to measure whether companies are doing right by all of their many internal and external stakeholders. Typically JUST Capital ranks the largest publicly traded corporations each year. But as Whittaker tells Fortune CEO and president Alan Murray on the latest episode of the Leadership Next podcast, in 2020, “everything is being shone through the lens of coronavirus and the economic fallout.”

Whittaker, who has been exposed to the coronavirus and is exhibiting symptoms, said that JUST Capital has been focusing its research on tracking how companies are stepping up to one of the most disruptive events in quite some time. Near the 12-minute mark, he points to Target as an example of a company that led the sector with its attempt to implement a large multi-stakeholder solution.

“Target extended benefits for all of their associates and their families. They immediately began to focus on drive-up and order pickup services in stores to minimize contact,” Whittaker said. “So what you saw was a multipronged response, very quickly, that prioritized the safety and health of their workers and their customers in a way that protected both and provided a degree of security in terms of employment.” 

But many companies are unable to offer employment security in the middle of an unfolding crisis that seems indefinite. Fortune senior editor Ellen McGirt shared perspective from her reporting this week that even as companies work to responsibly handle the human side of the fallout, they remain under an immense amount of pressure on the financial side.

“What’s clear from my reporting this week is that everyone—and I really do mean everyone, from a frontline supervisor to a chief executive—has a number in front of them. And that number is terrifying,” McGirt said. “It could be a percent of sales lost, lost revenue; all of it revolves around making very difficult decisions.” 

She introduced sound from Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark S. Hoplamazian, who walked through Hyatt’s decision to temporarily furlough and lay off thousands of employees while also trying to mitigate that impact.

Said Hoplamazian: “It’s the way we do it that matters the most. We’re trying to extend ourselves. We’re putting people on furlough and not layoffs so that it allows them to apply for unemployment benefits but maintain health care. We established the Hyatt Care Fund to help provide financial support for those most in need. 

“And finally we’re partnering with over 10 companies that are currently hiring—companies like Walmart and Pepsi and CVS and Walgreens—we’re very grateful to them for allowing us to plug straight into their application process online to help our colleagues find work there if they want to work during their furlough.”

At the end of the day, aside from egregious cases, JUST Capital feels it’s a bit premature to say which companies handled the pandemic the best and which failed. His company tracks data, yes, but Whittaker recommends considering it with a bit of grace.

“Don’t be really quick to judge today how companies are reacting in survival mode,” he said.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Does the co-CEO model actually work?
—What happens to a company’s stock when there’s turnover at the top
Being a CEO is more tenuous than ever. How I survived 30 years at Aflac
—For a time, Jack Welch was the most valuable CEO on earth
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson will step down

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