REUTERS | Mark Blinch

New normal, new ethics?

In 2019, the UK Office for National Statistics calculated that just over 5% of the UK labour force worked mainly from home. In the US, the percentage is even lower. A recent survey estimated that, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, only 3.6% of the US labour force worked from home at least half the time. Coronavirus has radically altered these figures, with a study by MIT estimating that, of those who had previously been commuting to work, 34% are now working from home.  And it looks like this trend could outlast the pandemic, with Global Workplace Analytics estimating that:

“25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”

There are potentially huge benefits from a shift to more home working including:

  • Less pollution from commuting.
  • Reinvigorated local communities.
  • More flexible working arrangements.

However, a big shift to home working will present some new challenges for the identification, management and mitigation of compliance and ethics risk.

Robust compliance programme infrastructure is only a start

Previously we relied heavily on our compliance programme infrastructure to drive and monitor compliant workplace behaviour. For example, our:

  • Policies and procedures.
  • Compliance training programmes.
  • Reporting hotlines.

With today’s tools and technologies, this infrastructure is relatively straightforward to maintain, even for remote workers. However, infrastructure is a necessary but insufficient mechanism for delivering compliance in practice. The most effective compliance programmes are underpinned by ethical organisational cultures that transmit and maintain ethical principles and behaviours. In part, this transmission depends on leaders, managers and peers modelling ethical attitudes and behaviours in practice, and actively demonstrating coherence between what is said and what is done by an organisation.

Coping with a sense of isolation

Sadly, it’s often the case that remote workers are not only physically distant but also culturally distant from the ethical heart of the business. Richard Bistrong wrote about this sense of isolation in a recent FCPA Blog:

“When I first became an International Sales VP, management required me to sign annual anti-bribery affidavits. But in between, no one really asked how I was getting things done. That feeling of, ‘I’m out on an island’, which I still hear today from commercial leaders, was always with me.”

The same issue is illustrated by the 2012 Department of Justice decision to avoid prosecuting Morgan Stanley over a multi-million dollar corruption scandal. In large part this was because Morgan Stanley was able to evidence a compliance infrastructure that included anti-bribery training and email reminders about the code of conduct to employees. Garth Peterson, an executive based in China, was subsequently jailed for evading the company’s internal controls. He later went on record saying:

“What I feel bad about is the government saying that they [Morgan Stanley] had this wonderful compliance program, when in fact the government knows that it wasn’t getting into people’s heads, which is what really matters. You can have programs and e-mails, but if people just delete them; if people have to do teleconferences but instead of actually listening, all you have to do is say, ‘Garth Peterson’s on the phone,’ and they check the box that says, he’s complied.  And then you either quietly hang up, or you just put your phone aside and you do your other work. That was the culture. And you know, that’s not right, but that’s the way it worked.”

Maintaining an ethical culture where increasing numbers of employees work remotely

Communication to combat isolation

A strong ethical culture relies on building and maintaining robust connections with employees. For remote workers this takes a little more thought than simply relying on informal workplace relationships to communicate cultural norms. If you are still operating a compliance communications programme based on annual e-learning, now is the time to look at a fresh approach. For example, consider planning regular communications that keep ethics front of mind.

Although building a programme of regular compliance communications can be challenging, it is worthwhile as our brains are wired to forget (we forget roughly 75% of new information we learn after six days). Anyone will struggle to remember the compliance training that they took last month, let alone last year. However, research by MIT has found that:

“Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.”

Tips on effective workplace compliance and ethics programmes

  • Communicate compliance messages regularly. Revisiting key themes over time aids memory.
  • Keep training modules short. Learner engagement fades after six or seven minutes, so there are diminishing returns on long courses.
  • Focus on helping people to understand what is expected of them, why it’s important and how to behave.
  • Consider having employees “sign up” to ethical conduct. For example, by certifying that they will abide by policies or your code of conduct. (Research by Dan Ariely suggests possible positive impacts on ethical behaviour from taking this approach).

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

Your compliance communications need to be relevant, meaningful and persuasive to engage your audience and drive ethical behaviour. Most of us like to understand why we are being asked to do something. Selling the benefits of ethical business practices is more motivational than being told to obey the rules. Remember that much of our decision making, including ethical decision making, is driven by our emotions. As marketing guru Robin Wight famously said:

“The causal role of conscious thought has been vastly overrated, and what we are in fact is not rational creatures, but rationalizing creatures.”

Appeal to your audience’s emotions and their ability to empathise in your compliance messaging if you want to support ethical decision making.

Finally, use a personal tone of voice. Research on discourse processing shows that people work harder to understand something when they feel that they are conversing with someone, rather than just receiving information. Adopt a conversational style using the active voice, short sentences and personalisation. For example, by using words such as I, we, me, my, our, you and your.

Look who’s talking

An ethical culture cannot be driven by compliance departments alone. The ethical culture of an organisation is supported or undermined by the words and actions of our senior leaders, managers and peers. When workers are co-located, this process happens informally but for remote workers we need to think more carefully about how we signal and influence ethical values and behaviours. For example:

  • Consider circulating regular videos and posts from senior leaders discussing compliance and ethics issues to signal commitment from the top down.
  • Demonstrate active engagement and advocacy from supervisors and middle managers. If your team and one-to-one meetings have moved wholesale to Zoom, Teams or similar platforms, consider equipping those leading the meetings with resources to help them highlight compliance and ethics topics, such as short slide decks, animations, facilitated discussion topics or team quizzes and games.
  • Introduce some competition. Put your compliance and ethics quizzes online and encourage people to engage with their peers, individually or in teams, to achieve the best score or fastest successful completions.

Out of the classroom and into the workplace

What we need most from our compliance training and communications is for learning to be transferred effectively to the workplace. When we are co-located with colleagues it’s easy to ask our supervisor or an experienced colleague what to do if we are unsure. This is more complicated for remote workers. Consider providing simple performance support tools to aid workplace compliance, such as:

  • Checklists.
  • Decision trees.
  • FAQs.

These tools can protect against failure and establish higher levels of baseline performance, and are available wherever and whenever they are needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this post on: