Writing as “The Ethical Leader,” Yan Tougas draws on 15 years of experience as a compliance & ethics officer at a Fortune 500 company, sharing insights, wisdom and lessons learned. All posts originally appeared on “The Ethical Leader” and are reprinted with permission. Views are that of the author. Visit YanTougas.com
FRIDAY, MARCH 17, 2023
If your boss doesn’t seem to care about your timely completion of online ethics education, it’s probably because her boss doesn’t care about it.
And if her boss doesn’t care about it, it’s probably because her boss doesn’t care about it either. And so on, all the way to the CEO.
Ethics & Compliance Officers can try to convince everyone that ethics education is important, or they can focus on the CEO.
TUESDAY, MARCH 14, 2023
Fulfill the pledge
A Girl Scout saw a contradiction between her pledge to make the world a better place and her task of selling cookies.
Girl Scout cookies contain palm oil, which has been linked to child labor and climate change. From her perspective, selling these cookies couldn’t possibly make the world a better place, so she decided to make and sell her own palm oil-free cookies (and give the profits to her local troop).
If your organization asked you to engage in activities that contradicted its values, how would you respond?
MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2023
Offer a testimonial
Are you an employee who had a positive experience with your ethics & compliance department lately?
If so, share your experience with others. You can discuss it at the next staff meeting, or write a blurb in the company’s newsletter, or even post about it on your company’s internal social media platform.
There is someone out there hesitating to speak up, and your sharing might be what convinces them to ask for help.
SUNDAY, MARCH 5, 2023
How to notice improvement opportunities
Today, create a 5-minute meeting in your calendar.
Make it a recurring meeting at 4:55 PM every workday. You are meeting only with yourself.
For 5 minutes, reflect on the day and ask: “What could we do differently to improve our culture?”
Chances are, you won’t find an answer to that question. It’s not the point of the meeting. The point of the meeting is to build a habit of asking that question.
Within a few weeks, you will start noticing, in the middle of the day, things that you could do better. You will know that you have time at the end of the day to reflect on them. A few more weeks and you won’t need the meeting at all. You will have become the type of person who effortlessly notices ways to improve your workplace culture.
So, of course, we need both.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2023
High and low fidelity
“Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t lie.”
That’s a phrase my CEO repeats regularly at town hall meetings. It compresses our code of conduct and our policies into a neat reminder that we seek always to do the right thing.
The problem with compressions is that they are low fidelity. “Don’t lie” doesn’t tell an employee what to say or who to ask for help. The high fidelity recording is the actual policy.
So, of course, we need both.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2023
Share your decision making process
A business leader recently asked me how she could increase her trustworthiness with her employees. Her business has had a difficult time in the last 18 months, which has forced her to make difficult decisions, and she now can feel a divide growing between her and her team.
My advice: put in writing how you make your decisions, and share it with your team.
Sharing your decision-making process increases transparency, which in turn increases trust. Putting that process in writing can only be done if you are clear about what drove your decision, and your clarity will transfer to your team (even if they disagree with the outcome). Once documented and shared, your decision not only becomes a reference for the future, it becomes open to attacks, something most leaders dread. However, this level of vulnerability is essential to building trust.
Most leaders understand that their job is to make decisions. Too few understand the importance of sharing how they make them.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2023
The minimal viable audience for ethics education
The concept of minimal viable audience (MVA) works well for most businesses. You don’t have to convince everyone that your product is right for them. Instead, you can focus on customers who already want what you have to offer.
When you try to please everyone, you risk creating an average product. This might be why ethics and compliance education, pushed to all employees, is often considered mediocre (and not that effective). What if instead we focused on the MVA?
The MVA for E&C education can often be our supervisors. They usually represent 10-15% of the employee base, having on average 8-10 direct reports each. It’s easier to tailor education for this small group, and it’s easier for them to pass the information on to their direct reports, whom they know well.
I’m not suggesting that all E&C education should be in the form of supervisor-led training (SLT). But I do believe that SLT has its place, and that not enough companies are making a good use of it.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 31, 2023
Choosing between two “rights”
Ukraine is facing criticism today because of its suspected use of petal mines near Russian positions.
Ukraine has been invaded and it has a right to defend itself. It probably feels that it has an obligation to defend its citizens by all means necessary, including using landmines that it promised not to use 25 years ago by treaty. Ukraine is facing a difficult choice: protect its citizens’ lives or uphold a treaty. It’s a difficult choice because Ukraine has to choose between two “rights”. It’s much easier to choose between right and wrong.
Which leads me to ethics training in the corporate world (remember, this is a business ethics blog, not a geopolitical one). Most off-the-shelf training use scenarios where employees must choose between obviously right and wrong solutions: “Should John look the other way when Mike skips a critical safety test on the assembly line, or should he report it?” This type of training might create some awareness but it doesn’t do much in terms of critical thinking.
Surely your company faced a difficult decision in the last few months. It was probably one where the “right thing to do” would impact one stakeholder favorably and another one unfavorably. Why not have leadership share with employees how they made the call? What arguments and consequences did they consider? Why did they land with one course of action over another? This type of transparency generates trust.
And consider using that scenario (or a similar one) in your training. By asking employees to make and justify their own call, you will sharpen their skills for the next tough decision.
MONDAY, JANUARY 30, 2023
Magnify your gratitude
I suspect readers of this blog know the importance of saying thank you.
But there are subtle ways you can use to magnify your gratitude. Here are some that I found in this article:
- Use positive adjectives when saying thank you: “Thank you for being so diligent in completing this task. You kept the project on track.”
- When people ask for your help, thank them for reaching out to you. Yes, they are adding to your full plate, but more importantly they are offering you a chance to contribute.
- Is a colleague updating you on a long-term, time-consuming, high-visibility project? Offer to help them with a small task, like scheduling the next meeting or preparing the agenda. Volunteering for this 5-minute task will not only make your colleague feel appreciated, it will provide much-needed stress relief (it’s much needed, no matter how small the relief is).
And by the way, dear reader, I appreciate you.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 29, 2023
When you help one parent, both benefit
The Democrats just launched the Congressional Dads Caucus.
Some critics on social media have attacked the initiative because, they claim, we still haven’t done enough for working mothers.
It is true that much more still needs to be done for mothers. However, it seems to me that mothers have struggled more than fathers in part because our culture did not, for the longest time, considered fathers as equal partners in parenting. By offering paternity leave, counseling services for fathers, on-site childcare, and flexible work schedules, fathers can be more present in their children’s lives, and provide much needed support for mothers.
In the current political climate, I don’t expect politicians to solve this issue. But I do believe that employers are in a good position to help mothers by helping working fathers.
Can your workplace do more for parents?
SUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 2023
Listen so they will speak up
The problem with most speak-up initiatives is that they are rarely coupled with an initiative to show managers how they can listen better and take actions that inspire trust.
How well a manager listens to an employee who is reporting wrongdoing will determine how likely this employee is to speak up again in the future. Here are a few tips for managers:
- Actively engage with your employees by asking follow-up questions and gather as much information as possible. This shows that you are taking your employee’s concerns seriously and are committed to understanding the situation fully.
- Ensure that the employee’s report is kept as confidential as possible. Only share with those who have a need to know. This will help the employee feel more comfortable reporting the misconduct and will also reduce the likelihood of retaliation.
- Be as transparent as possible about the steps you are taking in response to the employee’s report. This includes communicating with the employee about the status of the investigation and any actions taken as a result of the report (subject to privacy rules and common decency).
- Share with the employee your understanding that reporting misconduct can be a difficult and stressful process. This can be done by actively listening to the employee and acknowledging their feelings.
- Follow-up with the employee after the investigation to ensure that the employee feels heard and respected, and to check if there is anything else the employee needs.
The better we listen, the more they will speak up.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2022
Time to Get Creative
Today I asked GPT3 to write a 200-word blog post about business ethics. It wasn’t original but it was surprisingly good.
In a few years, AI will be able to write codes of conduct, corporate policies, training modules, and probably answer many ethics questions from employees.
E&C professionals should embrace this fact and anticipate the changes it will create. The creative aspect of our job is what still remains out of reach for machines.
Do you know how to boost your creativity? GPT3 just served me 9 suggestions.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 9, 2022
You Might Be in the Majority After All
We’ve all heard it before: 80% of people believe they are above average.
Here’s another discrepancy uncovered by Princeton University: 80% of Americans support climate action but they think that only 37% of their fellow citizens agree with them.
If we asked employees in corporate America if they think that ethical business practices are important, I bet at least 80% would say yes. But how would they rate their fellow employees? Probably lower, fooling themselves to believe that they are a minority.
People tend not to act when they believe they are in the minority. As a leader, sometimes all you have to do is show your peers that they are in fact in the majority.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2022
You Have More Power Than you Think
Many people feel powerless in the face of corporate wrongdoing.
The trick, often, is simply to do something. “Start where you are and do what you can,” as they say.
That’s what photographer Nan Goldin did after recovering from her addiction to Oxycontin. As a victim, she was enraged by the inaction of Congress and the Department of Justice. As an artist, she was also disgusted by the amounts of money that prestigious museums would accept from the Sackler family in exchange for their name to be engraved in marble. So she became an activist. And with nothing more than her determination, she applied pressure on the Guggenheim, the Louvre, the Met (among others) until they removed the obscene plaques bearing the Sackler name.
You will soon be able to learn more about her activism in a new documentary titled All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. In the meantime, what could you do to prevent or stop societal harm?
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2022
Is This Data Helpful?
This post is for E&C professionals who prepare slide decks at this time of the year to show “annual key metrics” to leadership.
This should sound familiar: you look at a chart and anticipate what questions leadership will have. Questions like “How does this compare to the previous 5 years?” or “What discipline were imposed for this category of allegations?”
And off you go preparing more charts. Each leading to more anticipated questions. And soon your deck becomes an exercise to answer questions from people who, at times, just like to hear themselves asking questions.
The only data that leadership should have is data that helps them make decisions, trust the current system, and anticipate what’s ahead.
If the data doesn’t do that, resist the temptation to include it.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2022
Good parents don’t allow their kids to insult others.
Good schools don’t allow their students to bully others.
And a new lawsuit against Walmart reminds employers that they can’t allow their employees to threaten others.
The value of respect should be included in all codes of conduct and enforced by all employers. Left unchecked, disrespect grows from insults to threats to violence.
Action must be taken at the first sign of disrespect.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2022
The Real Cost of a Product
When we buy a gallon of milk, we pay for more than the milk.
The seller is passing on other costs, like packaging, transportation, milking equipment, etc.
As climate change approaches a breaking point, it is time to factor in other costs, such as greenhouse gas emissions and water usage related to the product.
We can no longer simply pay for the cost of making a product that is damaging the environment. We need also to pay for the associated cleanup costs.
Responsible companies will do this on their own, because it is the right thing to do.
And because governments are likely to get it wrong.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2022
Adding Ethics Posters in Your Facilities Can Increase Reporting
It’s election season in the United States.
Driving around your neighborhood, you would notice several small signs, planted in front yards, showcasing the names of citizens running for office.
While you might think that these signs are a waste of money (in the sense that they would not influence your vote), a study showed that they in fact can increase a candidates’ vote shares by 1 to 2 percent.
This fact got me thinking about the ethics and compliance posters that my company uses in our facilities around the world. The posters include the pictures of the local, regional and global ethics and compliance officers that support each specific facility. It also includes their phone numbers, along with the phone number for our confidential reporting channel. Could these posters, like the political signs, increase the percentage of employees reporting wrongdoing? I think so. By 1 or 2 percent? Hard to tell.
But whatever the size of reporting increase, these posters are worth it. If your organization doesn’t use posters, consider creating them. And as this NPR article suggests, keep the message simple to maximize impact.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2022
The Whole Truth
My advice to employees who report wrongdoing to their ethics and compliance officer: tell the whole truth.
If you leave something out, it will affect your credibility. Once your credibility is affected, nothing you said, or will say, can be taken for granted.
The ethics officer you hoped would be your partner in righting a wrong will now have to doubt you every step of the way. Furthermore, she may lose some of her appetite to fight your fight.
If some of the facts are not helping your case, you should still disclose them up front. Don’t let your ethics officer find out from someone else.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 30, 2022
I probably come up with 10 bad ideas before I have a good one (if I’m generous to myself).
Chances are, our colleagues do no better. So for good ideas to surface at work, we need to welcome bad ideas.
What is your organization’s appetite for bad ideas? What happens to people when an idea, a project, or a big initiative doesn’t work? In some organizations, they throw a party to celebrate the lessons learned. In others, heads roll.
How safe is it to have bad ideas where you work?
MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2022
Show How Much You Care
If you ever faced a personal crisis, you remember how unhelpful it was when a friend said “Let me know if I can help.”
Well-intentioned, but unhelpful. It just added on more task on your overwhelming list. What you needed was a friend who said “Our family is going out to dinner and we’ll take your kids along so you can have a couple hours of quiet time.”
At work, when your team is struggling to meet a critical objective (financial or otherwise), asking them to let you know if they need help is equally unhelpful. Unhelpful and potentially dangerous. They might think that you care about the objective but not about how they will meet it. What they need to hear from you is “Let’s get in the conference room and figure out exactly how we are going to meet this goal the right way.”
THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2022
How Good Ideas Surface
I don’t know who said it first, but having a healthy speak-up culture does not only serve the compliance function.
When employees feel comfortable enough to raise concerns, they usually feel comfortable enough to share good ideas.
A good idea often brings disagreement. It disagrees with the old way of doing things, and some people are likely to disagree with the new idea.
We need organizations that can live with disagreements. As the world changes (and it always does), the faster new ideas are welcome, the more resilient is the organization.
Building a speak-up culture may be the most important thing we can work on.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2022
When two companies announce a merger, competition and securities laws prevent them from collaborating in almost every way until the merger is closed.
Ethics and compliance professionals are one exception. These pros from both companies are allowed to collaborate pre-merger, so that on Day One the new company can have a unified set of values, a common code of conduct, a standard way of reporting and escalating allegations of misconduct — among other things.
This is allowed because E&C professionals from different firms don’t compete, even within the same industry. The nature of our work is intended to be cooperative. Yet, so few of us actually reach out to one another to learn and grow.
If antitrust laws allow us to collaborate pre-merger, why aren’t we collaborating even more on a regular day?
TUESDAY, AUGUST 23, 2022
Give and Take
Are you an ethics and compliance officer tackling something for the first time? A code, a policy, a training, an audit – anything?
The rest of us are here for you. Chances are, hundreds of us have done the very same thing before, and we could save you a ton of hassle. All it takes is a few minutes on LinkedIn or Twitter or ECI Connect to ask for help.
But if what you’re doing is truly novel and has never been done, then please share the learnings with the rest of us.
All of us are smarter than anyone of us.
MONDAY, AUGUST 22, 2022
Every Opportunity Counts
Nearly 75 years ago, Dale Carnegie reminded us that every interaction we have with another person leaves them either a little better off or a little worse off.
Applied to business, we are reminded that every decision we make either brightens our image as an ethical leader or dims it.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 17, 2022
Whose Responsibility is it Anyway?
Too many business leaders delegate compliance to the corporate lawyers. These leaders tolerate rules as necessary and undesired limits to accomplishing their goals.
Meanwhile, the lawyers know that doing the right thing is everyone’s responsibility.
Where do you fit on that spectrum?
TUESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2022
What’s in a Name?
The World Health Organization just updated its guidelines to name newly discovered diseases, viruses and variants.
The goal is to avoid negative impact on people, places, tourism and trade. It turns out that when you give a virus the name of, say, “Spanish Flu”, it doesn’t do much good for Spain and Spaniards.
Do you work in an organization where names are given to special compliance initiatives or projects? Do you use vague code names like “Project Maple”, or specific last names, geographic locations, or business unit names? If the latter, have you considered the possible negative impact on the employees covered by these labels?
THURSDAY, AUGUST 11, 2022
If They Knew
What would your mother think?
What if it were on the front page of the newspaper?
These two integrity tests apply strong emotional pressure.
But here’s a more subtle test, one that we can use for most interactions:
If the people you’re interacting with discover what you already know, will they be glad that they did what you asked them to?
Seth Godin, The Practice, #36
MONDAY, AUGUST 8, 2022
Investigations and Trust
For Ethics & Compliance professionals, internal investigations are routine.
But for the average employee, they are not. Anyone participating in an investigation, either as a source, subject, or witness, will count the experience as one of the most emotionally-charged events of their career. They will remember where they were when the got the call from the investigator, and they will remember how nervous they felt when they entered the small, windowless conference room.
Investigators must therefore be as professional, fair, and kind as possible. In most cases, the employees they interact with will continue to work for the organization after the investigation, and they will share that experience with others.
Every investigative interview must be seen as an opportunity to build trust.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, 2022
Catch a Possible Offense Before it Reaches Your Customer
Another songwriter is going back to the writing board for using an offensive term in a song.
This story reminded me of the importance of diversity within E&C when creating policies, training and various communications.
A diverse creative team is more likely to notice what could be considered offensive, not simply what is missing. If your company operates in multiple regions and languages, send a copy of your text to locals and native speakers before a mass distribution. And if your company has employee resource groups (ERGs), send them a copy as well. If you have unintentionally committed a faux-pas, they will let you know.
SUNDAY, JUNE 26, 2022
There’s a Process for That
You can send an email to a new employee with a list of online course they need to complete, or you can meet face-to-face.
You can send a link to the corporate policy manual, or you can create job aids that ensure compliance with the policies.
You can write a code of conduct that reads like a bunch of rules, or you can describe the values you live by and the behaviors that go along.
You can keep the outcome of your investigations secret, or you can explain your rationale and show a fair and consistent process.
It should be clear that different processes lead to different cultural outcomes.
If you want a better culture, follow better processes.
If there is any part of your culture you don’t like, find the process responsible for it – and change it.
TUESDAY, JUNE 14, 2022
Culture: The New Competitive Advantage
For many years, the burgeoning compliance community tried to convince corporations that compliance was important. The message finally got across when regulators made it clear that non-compliance was more expensive than compliance.
And now, a new generation of E&C professionals is trying to convince companies that compliance programs, on their own, are not enough and must be augmented by an ethical culture. This message will soon get across, as business leaders realize that investors are losing their appetite for companies that ignore their people and the planet.
Doing the right thing is now a competitive advantage.
SUNDAY, JUNE 6, 2022
Would You Quit Over This?
Should you quit your job if your legal or ethical advice is not followed?
Usually not. In a company, lawyers and ethics officers are often viewed as advisors. A CEO is always at liberty to proceed against their advice is she so desires. If a lawyer advises against opening a satellite office in South Soudan because of corruption concerns, the business is free to proceed. And the lawyer should not necessarily quit.
But sometimes advisors need to fire back. This week, nine members of the Ethics Board at Axon resigned after the company decided to move ahead with its plans to develop Taser-equipped drones for police forces, against the Board’s recommendation. The resignations paid off, and the company’s plans were halted.
I admire the bold move. It was the only move left to protect the company from making a grave mistake. Think back of previous scandals, and many could have been avoided if those who silently spoke up internally had made a noisier public exit (Note: I am mindful that noisy public exits can also be costly for whistleblowers).
A part of me hopes that we see more of these courageous acts in the future. Another part worries that companies might simply stop creating ethics advisory boards.
SUNDAY, MAY 31, 2022
Not an Overnight Change
Culture will not change right after we announce our intention to change it.
That new action we believe will improve the culture, we’ll have to perform it repeatedly over years, until people believe that “this is how things are really done around here.”
If the percentage of female executives has been below 10% for ages in our company, and we announce an intention to do better, will women believe us if the percentage jumps to 12% the next year? Probably not. But if it steadily climbs every year and settles at 50% for a long period of time, somewhere along the way the culture will shift.
The same idea applies to how we change any aspect of the culture – how transparent we are, how inclusive we are, how much we support each other, and so on. It requires that we pay attention, that we listen, that we have a clearly-stated and meaningful goal, and that we take massive and sustained action.
SUNDAY, MAY 27, 2022
Please Steal From Me
If you are going to punish someone for bad behavior, you need to make sure that the punishment will deter similar behavior in the future.
Which is why the recent $150M fine on Twitter seems inadequate. The fine was imposed because Twitter, for 6 years, sold its users’ personal information to advertisers without the users’ knowledge or permission, just after promising the regulators (in 2011) that they would not engage is such practices.
During those 6 years (from 2014 to 2019), Twitter had gross profits of over $10B. Twitter doesn’t charge users for its services, so the vast majority of its revenue comes from selling advertising. This fine took away less than 2% of Twitter’s profits. I don’t call this a deterrent.
If someone stole $100 from the petty cash box and the punishment was to return $2, that employee – and all other employees – might actually be emboldened to do it again and again.
I expect that Twitter & Friends will be back in the news for similar behavior before long.
SUNDAY, MAY 25, 2022
To my friends who are licensed attorneys in Texas, the San Antonio Legal Services Association needs your help.
SUNDAY, MAY 24, 2022
Drag is everywhere in business.
Every time an employee is unable to produce or sell or make a decision, drag is created.
A good compliance program reduces drag. With a simple code of conduct and clear policies, employees understand what is expected and how to do it.
A good ethical culture is even more effective. By creating trust, employees are willing to take calculated risks, which lead to innovation, which in turn allows a company to outperform its competitors.
Do you know someone who blames the E&C department for slowing down business? Tell them to think again.
SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2022
If It’s Broken, Can You Fix It?
A few years ago, the third brake light on my wife’s Toyota died out.
I went on YouTube, found a video showing how to change that bulb, paid $4 at my local hardware store for a set of two, and installed the new light in less than 10 minutes.
You can learn to fix a lot of stuff on YouTube. The problem we face today is that more and more manufacturers are adopting practices that prevent people from making their own repairs. This is leading to significant environmental waste, at a time when the same companies are touting their low manufacturing carbon footprint.
Check out this interesting TED Talk on the topic. Then look at the products that your company is producing. Are they built to last? Are they repair-friendly? What type of waste will they generate at the end of their life cycle?
SUNDAY, MAY 20, 2022
Metrics That Answer Questions
This post from Seth Godin could have been written for ethics and compliance professionals who regularly scramble to create charts for the next board meeting.
Those charts are often filled with output metrics and lagging indicators that beg more questions than they answer. Those metrics are used because they are easy to track.
If I show you a chart that tracks my daily body weight (output metric), and you notice a trend or spikes, you will immediately ask for details about my nutrition and exercise (input metric). Keeping track of my weight is easy. Keeping track of my caloric intake and outake is a lot more work, but that’s where the answers are.
The next time you look at the chart that tracks the number of calls to your helpline, ask yourself how helpful it is (it’s not, at least not on its own). Then find something useful to measure.
SUNDAY, MAY 18, 2022
Using Policy Summaries As a Gateway to the Real Policy
We all wish that our employees would read our corporate policies, but we know that most won’t.
In response, we often write snazzy policy summaries, and we try to cram all the essentials on one page.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t increase the number of employees who actually read your policies.
There is a middle way. You can write summaries that entice, or even force, employees to go to the actual policy for critical information. For example, you can write in your summary that employees can accept gifts under $50 with their supervisor’s approval, but for higher-value gifts, they need to consult the policy for approval levels. The trick is to leave out of the summary critical elements, and to tell employees where to find them in the policy.
Writing policy summaries is great. Writing them in ways that channel your employees to the actual policy is even better.