Key compliance culture values for promoting employee integrity

Employee integrity is the cornerstone value for establishing organizational integrity, and therefore for the success of any compliance program. As fundamental as employee integrity is, it is also complex, elusive, and affected by a huge array of factors and influences. Perceptions and biases can defeat individual intentions for ethical behavior. External forces on the decision-making process and the impact of management in a complicated organizational structure and business world can defeat incentives for integrity and honesty.

What can a compliance program do to address the need for employee integrity in a world which presents so many obstacles and hindrances to developing and maintaining this trait? Compliance professionals should be the organizational standard bearers for encouraging good people to do good things and limiting access of the occasional bad people to do bad things. This message can be very simple and should focus on reinforcing positive perceptions of corporate values and leadership expectations so that employees aspire to model their own character within this.

  • Openness: Transparency and honest, active communication are crucial to the success of a compliance program. Employees must see that openness of communication and transparent reporting and sharing are highly valued. Open communication is directly linked to reduction of reputational risk and perceptions of greater honesty. Establishing a culture where employees feel it is encouraged or expected to speak up and speak out requires management to be meaningfully open, accessible, and relatable. In an environment where employees feel that all behavior and performance can be discussed openly, they will also be aware that it will all be noticed, and therefore will feel positive pressure to meet best expectations for integrity.
  • Clarity: Clarity of expectations and perceptions is essential for a culture of integrity. As with all objectives for compliance culture at an organization, norms and values must be clear and consistent across all employee populations. Communicating different or confusing messages, or giving information that impacts everyone to only some and leaving others out to hear it indirectly, is disastrous for imbedding ethical traits in an organization. Clarity promotes understanding and discussion, both of which are necessary for employees to take up the cultural objectives of the organization as their own.
  • Leadership: Tone at the top is just the first step. Leadership should be encouraged as a professional competency at all levels in the organizations, so that advocacy for the compliance culture can take root everywhere. Employees need to see leaders speaking up about the importance of integrity, but they individually also need to feel they are in the position to speak up themselves, and will be looked upon as vested with responsibility for their own integrity and choices in everyday ethical dilemmas.
  • Trust: Trust is the most simple factor for encouraging integrity in organizations, and indeed in all interactions and relationships, and it is also one of the most difficult and fraught qualities to meaningfully establish and maintain. Trust is constantly threatened and questioned. It cannot be given automatically and still have meaning, but it must be given confidently and with expectation that it will be received in return. Investments in mutual trust cannot be forced or demanded. The pain of having colleagues or managers who are not trustworthy can cause deep damage in teams and organizations and impede individual development. The only solution to this is to see trust as a reward and an ongoing evaluation, and to embrace frank and open dialogs which can help to resolve prior mistrust and discourage future violations.
  • Engagement: Engagement discussions usually focus on employees, but the quest for achieving it starts with management. Employees should see that management follows up, takes integrity seriously by individually espousing all the values, responds visibly to problems and complaints, and confronts issues boldly and confidently. Management engagement in the compliance culture should embrace professional skepticism and pursue public accountability. When employees see this, then they are empowered in turn to engage with their direct managers, peers, and direct reports to have discussions about integrity matters and to demonstrate all the traits that support ethical decision-making.

Modelling the key values of a compliance culture to create strong organizational drivers for integrity should be the focus of the conduct objectives of every compliance program. The fundamental message should be that performance and behavior linked to demonstrating integrity will be encouraged and appreciated.

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