Later this month, I will be speaking to business school students at Western Washington University as part of an Ethics and Social Responsibility class. I can’t help blushing. Who am I to stand in front of a lecture hall full of bright, shiny faces and pontificate about ethics?
Talk about an evolution
All I can think to do is reflect on my own business career, and link it to the evolution of corporate compliance.
In my time, I went from the “greed-is-good” Eighties (I was a litigator with a prestigious Atlanta law firm) through the boom years of the Nineties (I was in-house with The Home Depot, then one of America’s fastest growing companies) to the corporate scandals of the New Millenium.
Those scandals, and the financial crisis of 2008, led to a plethora of new rules focusing on compliance—Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank of course are the first that leap to mind.
In 2001, I helped found Employment Law Compliance, a company devoted to decoding workplace regulations for community banks. The aim was to provide take-and-use tools to help banks too small to have their own in-house employment counsel to navigate through the web of laws that HR has to deal with.
Every year since, the task of ensuring employment compliance has become more difficult.
This is the result not only of increased legal regulation, but also the rapid pace of technological change.
In 2001, who could have anticipated the issues posed by employee use of social media? Or the wage-and-hour problems associated with smartphone use outside regular working hours?
Where are we now?
It has become impossible to cover every situation with a policy setting out detailed rules of conduct. Employee handbooks would be inches thick, and need constant revision.
Yes, it’s essential to have broad policies setting out basic ground rules, for example, on harassment or conflict of interest. But an HR department that relies only on the existence of policies will find its utility is limited to defending the bank after misconduct has occurred. There is just not enough time for employees to consult the rule book before every action, even if there is an applicable rule.
We have to move from “compliance” to “culture.”
Instead of reference to rules, employees should develop an internalized sense of doing the right thing. An example I’m fond of: The high-tech company whose social media policy consists simply of telling employees, “Don’t be a jerk.”
How do we make the move?
How can we be confident that our employees understand what “doing the right thing” is?
There’s an old-fashioned answer: training.
The training content doesn’t have to be old-fashioned too. Take a fresh look at your training budget: Are you allocating resources year after year to the same tired topics? How about focusing this year’s training budget on nurturing an ethical culture, rather than (mere) corporate compliance? What would that look like?
Here’s a useful acronym* to help keep your training on track:
T … Tailored to your workplace, and relevant to your company’s culture and values.
R … Regularly scheduled, but with changing content to address new issues.
A … Attendance of everyone, including senior executives, should be mandatory.
I … Interactive sessions, with everyone encouraged to participate.
N … Interesting trainers sharing real-life Narratives that connect with the audience.
Although I have delivered it for various purposes to various organizations, I think web-based training is limited in its effectiveness to change culture. It should not be substituted for in-person communication in a group setting.
However, do think outside the box (the classroom) as well.
Training can be subtle, served in small doses for emphasis. Posters, wallet cards, “thought for the day” on computer log-in screens, competitions, and awards are all awareness tools that can supplement those in-person group sessions to help instill a positive workplace culture.
Don’t forget to foster two-way communication. Training should include information on how to speak up about inappropriate conduct. Encouraging individuals to report their concerns without fear of retaliation is crucial in building an ethical culture.
“Tone from the top” has been recognized as important in guidance ranging from 1991’s Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Compliance Programs to the recent Joint Statement on Diversity Standards.
Selling the boss on changing the focus
However, convincing senior bank officers to take the lead in the move from compliance to culture may meet resistance. They won’t be concerned solely about the cost in dollars and time. Senior executives may be worried that too much training will sensitize employees to issues that are not currently overt problems at the bank. Why rock the boat?
The most straightforward answer: This kind of training reduces the bank’s risk of legal liability.
Litigation or a government agency investigation is expensive, even if the bank is ultimately vindicated. The “no smoke without fire” effect may also hurt the bank’s reputation in the community, as well as undermining employee morale and increasing employee turnover.
The HR function most often controls the training budget. That puts HR in a strong position to implement the kind of change I’m advocating here, from just following external rules to relying on an inner compass that helps an employee recognize ethical issues and make appropriate decisions.
* My thanks to Colleen Karpinsky, vice-president of talent and legal at Dyn, and Charla Bizios Stevens with McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, Penn., for permission to use this acronym. The acronym appeared in their article in the ACC Docket in January.