Clear, consistent messaging is vital for compliance, whether to tamp down outbreaks in a pandemic or to ensure adherence to government regulations. Calvin London provides examples from the COVID response in Australia to illustrate how we can unnecessarily complicate compliance.
As we struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, it continues to provide examples of human behavior that are relevant to what goes on in the world of compliance. These examples make great fodder for compliance training and education, especially given the familiarity of COVID-19. The theme for the examples in this article is focused around the importance of delivering consistent messaging.
I have always believed clear messaging is critical to impart an understanding of what people need to comply with. This demands that messages are consistent and honest.
Compliance cannot be achieved with inconsistent information; it leads to inconsistent behavior. The COVID situation in Victoria, Australia (my home state) is a great example. In recent weeks, Victoria has seen an unprecedented spike in infection rates. On July 4, 108 cases were identified; on July 7, 127; and July 8, 191 new cases, the highest since March 21, resulting in drastic action by the Chief Health Officer to lock down the State again. As of July 9, Victoria is now back into Stage 3 lockdown for six weeks following a continual increase in COVID cases.
In March, when the whole state was in lockdown, the level of compliance was much higher. People were “doing the right thing,” although for many, it was more out of fear than understanding of what the right thing was or why. So, what changed?
In my opinion, two things:
1. People relaxed in the realization (true or otherwise) that COVID was not going to kill everyone, and with that, social distancing eased.
People no longer gave everyone the mandatory distance in public, and the messaging changed. For example, shops were required to show the maximum number of people allowed in store at any one time. Some store owners have people stationed at the entrance to control the numbers. This is equivalent to establishing regulations or guidelines in the compliance world and monitoring compliance with them. Once inside the store, however, it is a free-for-all. No social distancing, no allowance for others. This has intensified as people realize there are no penalties, so they do what suits them as individuals. Mixed messaging!
2. The government did not deliver on adequate deterrents, which sent mixed messages about the need to remain compliant.
Forget the cause for the moment (and in no way am I degrading the cause), but for any government to allow a mass rally of thousands of people at a time when people were only just becoming familiar with “the outside world again” was not good for compliance. Several sources have commented that the recent spikes in Victoria and indeed in other cities in the world have resulted from such mass rallies. The message being sent is “we are not going to really enforce the guidelines we have in place when the task becomes too great.”
The result for many people is that they then think it is acceptable to forget social distancing (i.e., uphold compliance) and start to behave in the opposite way. This in turn leads to further complications and instances of noncompliance and, in the case of COVID, more positive cases. One can draw analogies to the regulations that have been put in place for anti-bribery but which in many countries are rarely or only loosely enforced. Individuals realize that there is no substance to the regulations and resort to bribery, facing little, if any, consequences. Case in point: the changing landscape of corruption in some EU states that are seeing an uptick in crimes associated with corruption due to ineffective enforcement. Legislators have to reinforce policies with a strong moral fiber in order for anti-corruption legislation to be successful.
As a further example, policies relating to compliance must apply to everyone. Once we introduce exceptions, we are asking for trouble. Once again drawing on examples from COVID, recent spikes in positive cases have also been linked to families that ignored the isolation guidelines, leading to the spread of the virus. One report stated that in one case, 11 family members were infected from a single family gathering and in another, 14 across multiple households. In both cases, it seems the restrictions on numbers of people allowed at gatherings were ignored and participants in these family gatherings openly admitted to kissing and cuddling relatives.
This not only demonstrates that many people will not comply when (1) they do not understand what they need to comply with and (2) there are no penalties. It also reinforces that a large proportion of the population do not want to do the right thing; they want to do what suits them best. How many times have you heard ethics defined as “doing the right thing when no one is watching?”
We can also draw from examples of people who think that they can refuse to be tested, for whatever reason. While the government has the power to fine people that refuse testing (just under Au$10,000), this has not been enforced. The reluctance to impose a penalty is a combination of not wanting to take a hard line and trying to stay positive about the situation. In the early days of anti-bribery legislation, the stance was similarly, “let’s give people a chance to stop on their own,” a trend which is repeating itself now with the Modern Slavery Acts.
This sets a tone that the rules and governance in place are not applicable to everyone; if you come up with a good excuse – “it scares me” or “I have different cultural beliefs” – then you get let off. I can remember during the China scandal in the mid-90s, many pharmaceutical sales reps that were actively bribing doctors claimed it was their culture, so they were not doing anything wrong.
As a final example, the total failure in consistent and fair messaging associated with COVID is the change that came into effect on July 1: Reduced fines of up to 50 percent can apply to traffic, speeding and parking fines for people under financial hardship in some parts of Australia (excluding court, voting-related, jury or body corporate fines).
If people cannot uphold their social responsibility and behave ethically with social distancing and family gatherings, do we really expect them not to take advantage of relaxed penalties and dismiss the importance of road rules?
Isn’t this just like saying compliance regulations related to anti-bribery and fraud only apply to wealthy individuals because, below a certain limit, people are compromised financially and therefore need to behave badly?
These are trying times, and governments all around the world are facing significant challenges. Seasoned compliance practitioners will attest that consistency in messaging and unambiguous actions are the only way to ensure compliance. Furthermore, compliance is everyone’s responsibility; in the trying times of COVID, this is especially true. We only have to look at the world of compliance and see that when people are not held accountable for their bad behavior, those actions are repeated time and time again. Look at the number of corporations that pay a fine only to commit the same degree of fraud or deception again.
In this second round of lockdown, the message should be clear: Comply or pay the consequences. An array of caveats and exclusions puts people in a general state of confusion. People will find it difficult to comply with this six-week period; there were enough problems with compliance to the previous (much shorter) lockdown.
People need to behave ethically for compliance to be upheld. Unless the message is clear, people are provided with an ethical “out,” and if the belief in the value of the message is doubtful to start with, good compliance becomes a much harder reality to achieve.
Compliance will save us from COVID. Noncompliance will keep us where we are or – worse – escalate even further the number of positive cases.