HR should play an active role as your organization seeks to instill a strong culture of ethics and compliance. Here, HRCI CEO Amy Dufrane discusses what the HR team can do to cultivate employees’ sense of ownership and pride over workplace ethics and compliance.
“Put your money where your mouth is,” the saying goes. Turns out many people do just that. They shop their values. When consumers believe a brand has a strong purpose, they’re four times more likely to purchase from that company and four and a half times more likely to recommend it to family and friends.
Consumers also have the power to punish unethical or noncompliant behavior — and that’s a genuine fear among risk managers. According to data from Willis Towers Watson, 86 percent of risk managers ranked loss of income or reduced customer base as the worst outcome from reputational damage. Many of them also feared loss of talent and becoming less attractive as an employer.
And that risk is more real than ever. Many workers seek an engaging, supportive and ethical workplace experience, and they are increasingly willing to walk if they don’t find it. Here’s how to cultivate a sense of ownership and pride over workplace ethics and compliance.
Be Proactive, Not Punitive
You can’t instill compliance in your workforce through fear or an overwhelming amount of bureaucracy. Creating policies focused solely on compliance and risk aversion is stifling and doesn’t cultivate a sense of ownership within your workforce. Don’t develop policies that are based on assuming the worst intentions from your employees. They’re likely to only cultivate frustration.
Take Mary Barra, former CHRO and now CEO at GM. One of her first actions as CHRO was to do away with the company’s 10-page dress code, which she condensed to two words: “Dress appropriately.” That change forced managers to have conversations with employees about what the new code meant for them — resulting in a much greater sense of ownership over their appearances when representing the brand.
There’s always a temptation to add restrictions. Blindly following rules, however, won’t help employees appreciate the significance of their everyday actions. Indeed, a rule overload can easily backfire. If employees are overwhelmed by all your restrictions, it may become impossible for them to see the forest for the trees. They will focus so much on specific restrictions that they will lose sight of why the rules were implemented in the first place. (They may come to resent the red tape and do their best to ignore it.)
Instead, you need employees to feel a sense of autonomy. Without a larger ecosystem of purpose and accountability, workplace processes can seem arbitrary and controlling. If you explain that your processes are designed to save money, energy or time, however, then employees will feel more compelled to follow them, since they will understand the role their actions are playing in the larger picture. This gives employees the knowledge they need to propose process innovations to provide further savings.
Leaning into your culture for compliance takes a lot of hard work, but it gives employees a sense of agency that transcends policies and rules — and that’s how you cultivate a strong sense of ownership over ethics and compliance.
Show You Actually Value Your Values
For a culture of compliance to really take root, leadership has to model ways to keep values front and center in your organization. Encourage transparency and connect every decision from the C-suite back to some component of your values statement. Make sure that policies are linked to your values, too. Provide clear reasons why you’ve written a policy in a particular way and explain how enacting the policy supports company values. When employees see the “why” behind a policy or process, they’ll gain a better understanding of your intent in proposing it.
A company that claims to value employees and their mental health, for example, might cite this value in an anti-harassment policy. Having stated the value, now it needs to be backed by action. In particular, leadership needs to demonstrate they will reprimand bad actors. If leadership turns a blind eye to an employee’s racist comments because they’re a high performer, then the rest of the workforce won’t take that value seriously, either.
Referring back to (and living up to) your values statement should become second nature for every employee at every level. However, if leaders seem all too willing to make exceptions or look the other way, the values clearly aren’t valued. Everyone else will treat them accordingly.
The Importance of Individual Intent
For your workforce to take ownership of compliance, your values statement must become a cornerstone document. Then build on that foundation with specific guideposts. Ultimately, behaviors drive compliance. Provide guidelines that help direct how your values are expressed through actions. Having established clear definitions, consider each potential violation on an individual basis, making certain to consider their intent.
If someone acts in a noncompliant way, don’t automatically assume their intention was terrible. Explore why the individual did it. What was the thought process behind the action? How can you clarify your values to reduce miscommunications or mistakes like this in the future?
Indeed, you may recognize the real fault lies with the company itself. An employee causes a breach in your cybersecurity, for example. What if it’s clear this was a genuine accident? Indeed, it was an understandable accident, because your employees haven’t been educated on the hallmarks of a suspicious email or the actions they should take if they receive one. By examining the incident more deeply instead of immediately handing out a punishment, future problems can be prevented.
Cultivate Compliance Conversations
You don’t have to wait for something to go wrong to clarify how organizational values should be lived. Demonstrate that values are a priority by facilitating regular conversations about how they should be expressed or used when making daily decisions.
Develop some thought-provoking hypothetical scenarios, with potential outcomes ranging from the mundane to clear ethics violations. Train managers to pose these questions to their teams and lead discussions about which choice is correct and why. These discussions provide opportunities to help employees understand how big concepts are lived in their actions. For example, the concept of privilege could be addressed by revealing how small actions can lead to the exclusion of employees of color.
The more employees are talking and thinking deeply about how their actions impact compliance and how values can be used to make the right decision, the more they’ll adopt this process in their everyday actions. You should also be learning from them. Discussions can illuminate points where you need to further clarify values, behaviors and policies.
Keep Open Channels
Maintaining an open line of communication at all times can be easier said than done. Even if you encourage employees to come to you and insist they can do so without fear of reprisal, power dynamics may still prevent someone from approaching you (if they wish to raise concerns about a manager or supervisor, for example). While transparency is ideal, develop anonymous channels for feedback, too.
Remember: Your Work Is Never Done
Culture isn’t static, so your efforts to direct workplace culture toward a sense of ethics and compliance ownership can’t be, either. Update guidance regularly to respond to internal and external events that impact behaviors in the workplace. Focus on providing all the resources your workforce needs to not only maintain compliance, but to promote value-driven decisions and actions at a deeper level across the organization. The world and the ways we perceive it are continually evolving; make sure you do your part to ensure your company and its employees can as well.