Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Corporate cultural change: Tone and conduct at the top

This is the first in a series of five posts suggesting best practices for implementing corporate cultural change.  For an overview of all the tips on this subject, check out this preview post.  Today’s post will discuss tone and conduct at the top.  Next Monday’s post, on March 5, will be about enforcement.  The third post in the series, on March 12, will discuss effective policies.  The fourth post, on March 19, will focus on procedures to complement those policies.  Finally, on March 27, the fifth and final post will provide insights about innovative approaches to take employee and organizational education beyond the basics of routine training.

Building on the momentum created in 2017 by the brave and bold disclosures of the Silence Breakers, the #MeToo movement, and the #TimesUp initiative, in 2018 it is more timely and important than ever to throw major weight behind the need for disclosure, self-analysis, and change within organizations in all industries.  The focus on individuals – both in protecting those who have spoken up, enabling others to speak out, and keeping people safe in the future, and in properly punishing those who abused and harmed others as well as deterring further misconduct – must continue.


Ben & Jerry’s CSR origins

Corporate culture is most effective when it Is part of the organization’s origins. Compliance by force can never be fully effective at risk control or influencing corporate values. While organizations can and should always be looking to improve their standards and frameworks for compliance risk management, the most successful compliance programs will be rooted in the native culture of the company. For this reason thinking of compliance fundamentals from the beginning (such as described in this post or this post about start-ups, this post about founder-led business, or this post about small businesses) wherever possible gives the greatest chance of imbedding an authentic and engaging culture of compliance.

The above is especially true from a corporate social responsibility (CSR) perspective. CSR values adopted purely and un-authentically, just for competitive advantage or public relations attention, will not be convincing to all consumers or stakeholders, and therefore will not be sustainable. Companies that have some relation to or interest in political issues or social justice should recognize this early and often and incorporate activism and engagement into their company mission statements and values.


CSR tips for compliance professionals

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is closely related to business compliance.  Both CSR and business compliance share the objective to integrate requirements from legal, regulatory, and social expectations with organizational strategy.  Business compliance has the broadest mandate of creating both rules-based and values-based structures and systems to support corporate and employee integrity and adherence to laws, regulations, and norms.  In contrast, CSR has these same goals but focuses on engaging in corporate actions that contribute to social good, generate positive public relations attention, and promote ethics and accountability.

While compliance is often focused on defining internal standards for conduct and strategy in order to follow or improve upon outside requirements, CSR has a much more public posture.  CSR is focused on defining the company’s positions on the environment, reform, justice, philanthropy, community relations, and other outwards-facing social initiatives.  After these objectives are defined, the company then presents and promotes its positions to consumers and society. CSR and compliance both contribute to a company’s mission statement and values, but CSR has a heavier hand in guiding the corporate image that is presented to consumers, industry partners, and society as a whole.  


Tony’s Chocolonely and a Roadmap for CSR principles

The chocolate business has long been plagued with associations with slavery and child labor. In the countries where manufacturers buy their cocoa beans, trading companies and farmers traditionally have engaged in exploitative and unfair business practices both between each other and in employing the work of slaves, many of them children. Chocolatiers have even claimed that producing chocolate without the use of slave labor at some point in the supply chain, however remote, is impossible to prove or accomplish. Instead, the industry has focused on shifting risk or responsibility for the use of slave labor or abusive trade partnerships by moving these decisions and relationships to third parties and offering ignorance or lack of control as a defense.

Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch confectionary company, offers an intriguing alternative to and challenge within this market. The eponymous Tony is actually Teun van de Keuken, a Dutch investigative reporter. In 2002, van de Keuken was working on a project about chocolate manufacturers. He determined that none of the manufacturers he studied that had signed the 2001 Harkin-Engel (aka Cocoa) Protocol, an international agreement intended to end child and forced labor in chocolate production, were in full compliance with the protocol’s requirements. Therefore, all the chocolate for sale by those candy companies (including Hershey’s, M&M Mars, Nestle, and Guittard) was, in van de Keuken’s view, an illegally-manufactured product.


Compliance must-haves for changing organizational culture

The ongoing public disclosures about sexual harassment and abuse that have filled the news since mid-2017 have led to a major cultural reckoning.  Courageous people have come forward to share stories about inappropriate and dangerous behavior of high-profile individuals.  The public discourse about these people who were violated by abusers and predators with the complicity or support of other individuals or organizations has, to this point, focused largely on bringing these offenses to light, in order to listen to and believe in victims, so that they may be supported and empowered as survivors and as bearers of new societal norms.


Institutional responsibility and the US Olympic Committee

The end of 2017 has been an explosive and revelatory time for public disclosures about culturally-pervasive sexual harassment and abuse. In most cases the reporting has focused on exposing various individuals, who committed their offenses with the full force of their power and prominence within their communities, organizations, and industries. All too often, the courageous narratives presented by the individuals who come forward to tell their stories include the fact that their harasser or abuser systematically prevented them from work advancement or access to work at all, in many cases withholding employment opportunities and in some cases, even coordinating with other men in positions of authority to prevent the women from working in the future.

The many (and continuing) disclosures about the inappropriate and dangerous behavior of these high-profile men has been a cultural watershed moment. Hopefully this heightened awareness will lead to a transformation in the public discourse about societal expectations around these dynamics, as well as justice for the women who have had their lives negatively impacted and their careers curbed or ended. However, many questions remain in what structural progress, if any, will come from the individual cases, no matter how numerous they become.

Thus far, far-reaching institutional responses to the misconduct of these individuals has been lacking or entirely absent. The best most organizations have been able to muster is routine HR statements that the accused men are being suspended or will resign, sometimes accompanied by saccharine denials of knowledge and expressions of regret, and seldom followed up with any significant sort of commitment to organizational change or an authentic intention toward setting a standard for corporate social justice.

Corporate boards and senior management at organizations under fire for the unacceptable behaviors of their principals and often most visible representatives have proven lacking in the unfolding of this cultural moment, which is driven by individuals and targeted at individuals. While certainly these are cases where bad people did bad things, it is important to acknowledge that they were empowered to do so, implicitly or in some cases expressly but with a blind eye toward their malfeasance, by the organizational structures which promoted and supported them and oppressed and marginalized their victims.

For more on the complicity of corporate leadership and the dubiousness of their malleability to change even amid the major societal focus on these issues, check out these great pieces from Wired:  Corporate boards are complicit in sexual harassment and Making the silence breakers Time’s Person of the Year won’t change anything.

One particularly beleaguered institution that is confronting the limitations of its definition of its own institutional responsibility is the US Olympic Committee. Ethical and integrity questions about the actions of individuals associated with the US Olympic Committee are nothing new. Incidences of cheating, doping, and abusive behaviors by coaching and medical staff are, unfortunately, nothing new. Because the US Olympic Committee relies on a vast network of local personnel who train, recruit, develop, and support athletes often from a very young age. Under these conditions, athletes, their schools, and their families place tremendous trust in the representatives and related parties to the US Olympic Committee that they rely upon to bring their Olympic ambitions to fruition.

All too often, predatory coaches are reported by a victim only to have multiple other athletes come forward to say that they too were mistreated and abused. Organizations within the US Olympic Committee’s umbrella ban individuals proactively upon revelations of sexual abuse, and make efforts to distribute guidelines and ensure education, but underreporting of instances of sexual assault mean that predator coaches prey on athletes for entirely too long undetected.

The reality is, the US Olympic Committee has 48 national governing bodies underneath it which thousands of club teams and gyms underneath that. The sheer volume of organizational and administrative entities through which these abuses pass and would need to be addressed or investigated, all without a national entity or a mandatory supervisor to set a compulsory standard for this, is one of the greatest forces working against effective identification and removal of predatory coaches. In this context, major organizations such as the US Olympic Commission too often focus on removing individuals without identifying root causes or building defense structures against the underlying problems.

Changes are too often driven by media exposure and fear of reputational damage, and too infrequently motivated by compassion or justice. Until these institutions adapt their approaches to address sexual abuse as directly as they can their commercial concerns, and until adequate oversight and control measures are taken with meaningful enforcement actions to back them up, individuals will continue to be harmed.

Organizations must change from operating independently on these issues, which provides them with the plausible deniability of jurisdictional ignorance and a patchwork of ineffective rules and procedures for processing sexual assault claims and investigations. Instead, senior leadership must stand up and make these processes uniform and coherent so that they can be not just a pretense, but also effective in protecting individuals and taking responsibility. Only then can the brave testimonies of individuals lead to organizational change toward practices that will respect and protect them.

For more about the US Olympic Committee’s challenges in defining and enforcing a meaningful code against sexual abuse and misconduct in its ranks, check out this article from Harper’s Magazine:  Pushing the Limit.


Design ethics of addictive technology

As social media platforms, the internet of things, and other online networks advance in sophistication and prevalence, the line between engagement and addiction becomes ever thinner. Features which are designed to make browsing the internet or using connected devices more comfortable, intuitive, and pleasurable are also vulnerable to misuse and abuse which can have highly negative impact on people’s daily routines and lives.

Indeed, the stereotypes of people too engrossed in their phones or tablets to even notice the people around them are widespread and real. So much of social interaction has been carried over into online communities and takes place on social media or in internet comment sections and forums. The positive possibilities of this kind of access to information and collaboration are boundless. Connecting across continents and sharing all kinds of information and ideas is powerful for learning, cooperation, and creativity. Making these systems better and more efficient for users to engage with only further empowers these uses. Designers, engineers, and technologists have taken the positive responses from users and implemented that feedback in coming up with new features and improvements with the aim of making the user interface and experience better.

Whether it’s making screens balanced with vivid images that are easy on the eyes or implementing machine-learning based algorithms that fill users’ feeds with the most interesting and entertaining information tailored for them, the original aim of these innovations is to make the platform or device more interesting to use and therefore to encourage the user to spend more time on it. This has obvious commercial appeal to the companies that create these networks and devices, their advertisers, and their other partners who are all competing to attract people’s attention and gain valuable impressions or content views. Time is money, and a faithful user is a lucrative one.

However, those eyeballs content providers and marketers wish to attract are, of course, inside the heads of people and therefore the ever-ramping effort to engage those people runs into risky territory where interest or active participation edges into dependency and addiction. There are countless studies which have shown health problems stemming from overuse of phones, tablets, computers, and other devices, including eye fatigue, migraines, sleep deprivation, and other problems related to vision, concentration, or stress caused by overindulgence in looking at screens. This is not to mention the destructive social impact that over-immersion in devices can have, isolating people from their families and communities as well interrupting work, diminishing traditional communication skills, and exposing people to online abuse and other unsafe or inappropriate content that could cause harm.

In fact, some of the individuals who have had the loudest voices against the dark side of the advancements of personal technology are in fact the designers and engineers who had a hand in actually creating the most addictive features. For example, the engineer who was involved in creating the Facebook “Like” button and the designer who worked on the “pull to refresh” mechanism first used by Twitter are among a growing group of technologists who have started to question and reject the role that immersive technologies play in their lives. These individuals understand the good intentions that were behind the original creation of these technologies, with the hope to make them more useful or fun for users, but they also see the downsides. Coined “refuseniks,” these early adopters have purposefully made efforts to diminish or balance the presence of technology in their lives. As many of these addictive behaviors center around the use of smartphones and applications on them, many of these people who designed these features and now speak out against them turn off notifications, uninstall particularly time-wasting applications, and even distance themselves physically from their phones by following strict personal rules about usage or cutting off access after certain times or in specific places.

The question remains – pioneers of these features may have matured within their own careers and lives enough to realize that their earlier intentions have destructive potential they don’t want to indulge personally. But how will companies creating products and services in this space balance this as public attention begins to more commonly acknowledge the problematic nature of these features? Being a refusenik cannot be the answer for everyone, as these devices and platforms do bring great value to their users and the world as a whole, despite the negative effect they can frequently also have. Organizations working in this space can take advantage of corporate social responsibility values to balance their innovation of new features with the expectations of how consumers can use them, for good or bad.

On an individual level, it is very helpful to take personal responsibility to acknowledge and understand how these platforms and technologies are designed to make people engaged and how that can turn to addiction. Being conscious of these features or tendencies in their use is key. People should push themselves to understand why and how they use these technologies before adopting and engaging in them. If they feel prone to misuse of it, then understanding the cause of it and exposure to it will help to mitigate its effects.

For an interesting perspective on high-tech designers and technologists who have rejected the technologies they sometimes played pivotal roles in creating, check out this article from The Guardian.