As many employees continue to work remotely, effective oversight remains an issue, and for some, that may feel like license to bend the rules. Calvin London offers practical tips to reinforce your company’s commitment to compliance.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, it is hard to imagine when it will subside, if it will subside and what life might be like after that. One thing is for certain: We will need compliance just as much as we do now, if not more so. A world without compliance is a world of chaos, and we have seen that COVID-19 thrives on chaos.
These are trying times for businesses – a fragmented workforce in many cases with employees working from home, distanced from their colleagues, and business models complicated by acute financial pressure and uncertainty… fun times!
It is almost the perfect storm for noncompliance. Although no one likes to think of themselves as “compliance police,” the sad fact is that people don’t usually commit crimes in front of police. Part of the role of corporate compliance folks is to be front and center, showing the way with examples of good, compliant behavior and helping to set the “tone at the top.”
In a remote environment, this is more difficult. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you have not already realized, when all is said and done, it will be all of you good compliance and legal folks that will have to pick up the pieces. Even though you may not be visible, you can still be heard, and now is a great time to start to remind employees about your compliance program. Here are five suggestions that may help prevent compliance issues.
1. Keep Compliance Top of Mind
Use short communications, such as “sound bites, training shots or memory joggers.” Training shots are short training statements to remind employees of aspects of policies or procedure. Sound bites and memory joggers are concise email communications to deploy relevant quotes, facilitate discussion on scenarios related to compliance issues or provide updates on compliance initiatives.
Both can be beneficial in a learning environment, but also make an excellent way of keeping compliance in the minds of employees working remotely. A memory jogger or sound bite could be a simple message, like “Cybercrime is real. Check before you open unknown websites.” Think of a headline in a newspaper.
This may be all that is required to remind employees about the risks of cybercrime in an external environment, especially if the use of personal equipment for business is permitted during times such as COVID-19 isolation.
Similarly, a training shot may be a single multiple choice question sent around to employees. For example, asking which of these characteristics – poor spelling, calls for immediate action to open a link or requests to provide information in a short time frame – apply to a potential phishing scam email?
These tools can be a good way to keep employees in touch with everyday procedure, especially in relation to new issues that arise from working remotely, such as problems with communication and other compliance issues. They replicate what might normally occur in an office environment where a casual conversation might raise an issue, such as the rise in cybercrime with more people working from home. They need not be long or complex, but as the names suggest, provide a quick reminder that compliance does not go away.
2. Let People Know You Are Around
Just because you can’t be present, there is no need to be silent as well. Even though employees may know the correct procedure, they will enjoy the contact and sense of some normality in the form of an offer of help or guidance. Reaching out will instill a sense of camaraderie and (in times of isolation) provide another reason for some virtual contact with people they know.
You also have opportunities to reach out to groups of employees to discuss current issues of noncompliance: virtual training sessions. You can choose from many examples in the compliance press that will provide content relevant to the current potential issues – for example, data handling and protection, or the dangers of writing too much in emails that form permanent records that may be misconstrued or taken out of context at a later stage.
In these times of remote working, there is a particular need to let new employees know who you are and what the expectations will be. Many companies trying to maintain business during these times will see recruitment as an ongoing process. This is especially true in organizations with high turnover in the salesforce, where establishing an early set of required compliance standards may be essential to protect the company’s integrity. Isolation is not an excuse; it is a complication that compliance managers have to overcome.
3. Encourage Your Speak-Up Program
What, you don’t have a “speak up” program? Now may be the perfect time to introduce one; they’ve proven very powerful and engaging. Many have discussed the benefits of providing employees the power to speak up, which can be done in various ways and to various degrees of complexity and formality. The two essential components of a functional speak-up program are that employees feel (1) they have an avenue to express their concerns and (2) that their issues will be heard and addressed, even if the issues cannot be resolved on the spot.
An applicable extension of your speak-up program relevant to remote business processes could be the addition of an “ask before you act” policy. In this scenario, employees are encouraged to ask someone whether their intended action is correct procedure before they actually act. Once again, this has particular relevance in a remote working environment, as it mimics what would normally happen in an active work environment where you might been encouraging employees to run a proposed action past legal or compliance or an employee’s manager.
4. Keep People Up-to-Date on Their Ethical Stance
A range of articles have emerged in response to the changes required with COVID-19, such as the recent article by Chris Jeffrey, “Don’t Lose Control During COVID-19.” We have already discussed reminders on important issues that must continue even when working in a remote environment, such as document retention or document signing. These present their own technical challenges, most of which can (thankfully) be addressed with modern technology.
Enhanced vigilance concerning people’s ethics, however, is a long-standing issue that needs extra attention during these trying times. Employees may not necessarily intend to do the wrong thing, but in frustrating and stressful times, dropping one’s guard can lead to compliance issues. Additionally, employees with questionable ethics may feel that while the cat is away, they can play, since the likelihood of their being found out and held responsible will be diminished.
COVID-19 continues to provide fodder for discussions about ethical behavior and the impact extreme situations have on it. I have written on this subject in CCI previously.
Either way, there is an opportunity for compliance and legal folks to be virtually present and serve up important reminders about the company’s stance on ethics and integrity and the reasons why these are important.
5. Keep Your Toe in the Water
A final activity that compliance in particular can practice as teams continue to work remotely is to actively maintain contact with the other key functions of the organization. There is a tendency when working in isolation to become singularly focused on the issues at hand and that appear most urgent. There is a lot to be said for regularly touching base with IT, HR, quality and senior management to gain a barometer read on what issues they are seeing that might have an eventual effect on the company’s compliance stance. This would happen in a normal business environment over a coffee or the infamous “water cooler” conversations. In remote situations, we must make the effort to organize these catch-ups. Their impact may have a significant effect on allowing the compliance function to more effectively plan and execute any of the suggestions above.
For legal and compliance ambassadors, the bottom line is that your role in these trying times is to think outside the box. Be inventive in what you do; try something different. Maintaining compliance during these difficult times – especially if your organization is largely working remotely – will ease the burden when life returns to some form of normality (whatever that may look like).
As has been pointed out by a former U.K. prosecutor, a virtual workforce brings its own challenges for delivering effective compliance. You do not want to return to your office at the earliest possible opportunity only to face a host of issues caused during the isolation period.
In so many ways, compliance will get us through this pandemic.