Tips for improving employee accountability in compliance programs

The most ambitious culture of compliance paired with the most robust controls framework still cannot succeed without employee adherence. Employees who don’t know the correct thing to do, or those who make an unethical or non-compliant decision despite knowing, can be addressed with awareness communication in the first case or remedial action in the second case.

However, the more frequent and challenging scenario is that employees have received information about compliance risk management priorities and ethical culture at their organization. They understand this information well enough and maybe even admire the aims of the compliance program, but there’s a problem – they don’t see themselves as having an active role in it.

The best efforts of compliance programs will always be overcome by apathetic or unengaged employees who don’t see themselves as having personal compliance responsibilities. In cybersecurity, for example, the best IT systems with the most up-to-date risk controls structure will still be defeated by an employee who falls for a phishing scheme or leaves behind an unsecured laptop in a public place. Some mistakes are unavoidable, of course, just like some risks can only be mitigated or accepted. However, many other errors, acts of misconduct, or risk factors can be prevented with the appropriate individual vigilance and diligence.

So how can a corporate compliance program emphasize to employees that individual responsibility is the fundamental defense in any risk and control framework? Too many solutions from management or consultancy rely heavily on data solutions and systems approaches to addressing compliance risk. The logic goes: failures of existing compliance programs to prevent ever-evolving fraud and misconduct are unfortunately not unusual, so why not simply blame human misjudgment or incompetence for inadequate controls and therefore just automate processes whenever possible?

The above is a cynical and defeatist attitude toward corporate compliance; if management or its advisors decides that corporate compliance will fail, then it certainly will do so. However, removing the obstacles to individual responsibility is an important step to empowering organizational integrity. Outsourcing or digitalizing analysis and advisory work is an artificial, external solution. It may expedite or simplify some aspects of working with compliance risk management, but it cannot ever be as effective as a values-based approach that creates a corporate culture where good judgment and ethical decision-making are incentivized and supported.

Indeed the first, and probably best, solution for raising the standard of compliance programs and their controls is to promote employee engagement in these across all levels of the organization. This starts with individual accountability, which compliance professionals and senior management can nudge employees toward embracing these ways:

  • Walk the walk: Senior management should weave a thread of the corporate cultural values throughout all matters that touch an employee’s working life. This needs to be consistent and visible. Communication should be simple and straightforward, practical and not preachy, but it should express and reinforce the cultural values. In HR matters, for example, transparency should be communicated and modeled. Employees must see the corporate cultural values explicitly expressed as they experience corporate administration across the organization. This brings the values from mere words to a living system in which they are participants.
  • Nudge with timely reminders: Regulatory, legal, and policy requirements change rapidly. Employees that are trained regularly should be respected for what they already know; heavy-handed instruction can be seen as condescending. However, reminders upon key messaging events (anniversaries, completion of investigations, or announcements of strategies) or updates when there are new guidelines or expectations are critical. These reminders can act as nudges toward appropriate behavior for individuals whose attention may have moved on or whose understanding was out of date.
  • Work against culture of fear: People often think about speaking up in the workplace in terms of following an internal escalation process or being a whistleblower. To some people, speaking up by challenging an established procedure or an experienced colleague may seem unprofessional or presumptuous. The possibility of being opposed or facing retribution can be very scary for employees who might want to express uncertainty or ask questions. Corporate compliance programs have a responsibility to create a culture where speaking up routinely is safe and supported. A relationship-based approach to business compliance advisory is a great first step toward combating the fear factor and helping employees to speak up to check understanding or challenge practices. Involved employees are more likely to be accountable ones.
  • Actively address accountability gaps: When it is evident that an employee or group of employees do not embrace accountability in compliance risk management, address it, but not punitively. Open discussion can be mutually beneficial. Take the opportunity to express that individual responsibility is expected, and also to listen to the limitations or uncertainties that may provide an explanation for why it’s missing.
  • Insist on consequences: Disciplinary action is never the intended outcome for any employee-management relationship. Ideally everyone would want to and be able to do the right things all the time, but clearly mistakes and misconduct happen. Good people/bad people dichotomies are classic but not necessarily helpful. In reality, it’s most important to establish from the beginning that consequences for doing the wrong thing exist and will be enforced fairly and meaningfully.

There will always be people in organizations who either are in need of training or resourcing attention (wanting to do the right thing but not being properly equipped) or people who are not cultural fits (wanting to do the wrong thing despite organizational priorities). Engaging these people where possible is critical, just as holding all others accountable for their actions and responsibilities is the frontline defense most important to compliance risk management.

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