Effective ethics and compliance training are more than just formalities in the onboarding process. Skillsoft’s John Arendes and Convercent’s Katie Smith explain how to ensure ethical behavior is rooted in company culture.
Speaking up in the face of unethical behavior takes a great deal of courage, and your company needs employees who feel empowered to share their concerns without repercussion. It’s up to the organization and its leaders to foster an ethical culture and integrate compliance training to support business objectives so employees will feel empowered to stand up and speak out. Here are some proven tips compliance and ethics leaders can use to build trust and increase engagement within their organization.
Set Organizational Expectations for All Employees
It should be baked into the culture of the organization that every single person, from the night janitor to the CEO, has personal responsibility and accountability for upholding the company’s values. A crucial part of that responsibility is speaking up when witnessing misconduct. It’s not enough to write these expectations into the code of conduct, either.
Corporate culture needs to be fully embraced from the top down. The creation of an ethical, people-centric culture must have the full support of the leadership team. Any company that’s serious about creating a “speak-up culture” needs to walk the walk, and it all starts with the environment.
Create an Environment Where it’s Okay (and Safe) to be Vocal
Many employees fear retribution if they speak up about wrongdoing. Their fears are understandable, considering the harsh realities of whistleblower retaliation. To combat those fears, create an environment where making mistakes is acceptable and listening to each other is the norm.
Start by building trust on the “front end.” The majority of employee relations issues are reported to an immediate supervisor, not to the helpline, ethics & compliance or HR. That means we need to train and empower leaders to create robust team cultures where people are encouraged to share diverse thoughts, ask questions and challenge processes or behaviors. Employees also need to know that:
- The company wants their feedback.
- They will be protected.
- The company is listening.
- Concerns will be taken seriously.
- Appropriate action will be taken.
When employees feel heard, they’re far more likely to report serious issues as they occur.
Demonstrate Organizational Justice
Does organizational justice exist in your company? This concept refers to how much (or how little) employees feel that their voices matter. Without organizational justice, employees won’t report unethical behavior. Cultivating this vital sense of justice requires:
- Consistency in how similar cases are treated, including how employees are disciplined.
- Communication to the organization that there are no “sacred cows.” High-value employees, like a top salesperson or senior executive, have no place in an organization if they’re undermining the culture, breaking policy or acting unethically.
- Storytelling; consider sharing sanitized stories of real issues that have occurred.
The last suggestion might give you pause, but storytelling was just highlighted as a best practice in the 2019 Department of Justice “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” guidance. Sharing real stories provides an opportunity to educate the workforce on relevant issues, lessons learned as they relate to policies and codes of conduct, how/if offenders were disciplined and more. It’s also a perfect demonstration of how seriously the company takes reported matters and shows that action will be taken in the face of ethical transgressions.
Compliance training courses should be designed to appeal to the mind and to the heart. With effective storytelling that is relevant to employees’ specific roles and values, they will feel more invested in their training and begin to understand how to approach unethical behavior.
One of the most common frustrations incident reporters share is that they’re skeptical of the process if the implicated person didn’t get fired and is still walking the halls, business as usual. Of course, this alone doesn’t point to inaction. Demotions, withdrawn bonuses, additional training and write-ups are all forms of appropriate action. To protect privacy, they aren’t visible to all employees. By telling an anonymized version of incidents, employees can see that organizational justice has indeed been served.
Stories can also be used to highlight ethical behavior. For example, say an employee reports an issue that did not result in disciplinary action. However, it did shed light on a process breakdown. By reporting the issue, the reporter singlehandedly had a positive impact on the organization’s culture.
Monitor for Retaliation
As we mentioned earlier, the thought of being retaliated against after reporting an incident is scary. One of the fastest ways to undermine a speak-up culture is to allow retaliation to occur, because:
- Mistrust will fester.
- Reporting will drop off.
- The rate of anonymous reports will increase significantly.
To avoid the above, we must monitor for retaliation. You’ll first need access to the relevant data and developing a partnership with HR is a great way to do this. Some suggested monitoring ideas include:
- Performing 30-day, three-month and six-month check-ins with reporters and implicated parties (for all serious allegations or just for those that have a higher risk of retaliation).
- Monitoring employees that exit the company or who suddenly switch departments.
- Comparing involved parties’ compensation against their peers. Has their compensation lagged, and could retaliation be part of the reason?
- Reviewing involved parties’ performance evaluations. Did their performance significantly decline post investigation? If so, retaliation could be a factor.
As your organization works to create its own speak-up culture, be sure to keep these considerations in mind. Soon enough, the entire workforce will feel wholly comfortable reporting unethical behavior and helping their organization take necessary corrective action. As a result, they will make their organization safer and stronger.