How to make voluntary engagement with compliance values meaningful

A pure rules-based approach to compliance is direct and clear-cut, but by design lacks emotional or personal engagement. Following rules of all kinds – legal, community-based, household; practical, austere, illogical – is a social norm most humans are taught from their earliest memories. Despite this, many of them do not do it very well even with the best intentions, and still more never intend to attempt adherence.

To have any expectation that rules will be credible and inspire understanding and respect, there must be an authentic and compelling “why,” a purpose that people feels relates to them and calls for their commitment. Many laws are so deeply linked to societal expectations and taboos that the majority of people do not need to be persuaded to appreciate them – restrictions against pre-meditated murder, property theft, and abuse of animals for example. Those who remain unconvinced these acts should be prohibited and punished are not likely to view violating laws as something offensive or damaging either.

Sincere attempts to reach individuals who are antipathetic toward all rules, however few or rare they may actually be in society, with a rationale rooted in values are not likely to prevail. In general a values-based approach can be very powerful and evocative, but in order for it to hold personal appeal it must strike a difficult balance between universal relatability and individual accountability. All organizations should define their values and position their strategy and public branding within that set of principles, but this is delicate. If the values are too specific then they will be exclusionary rather than engaging, appealing only to a core group of true believers rather than attracting a wider audience. If the values are too broad, however, then they will be superficial and ring empty – again preventing individuals from attaching to them and being their standard bearers.

An especially effective tactic for bridging this gap is to make corporate values a living artifact which reflect the organization as it grows and changes along with business and society. In an ambitious and forward-looking organization, the profile and strategy will evolve and so should the outlook of what matters most in defining its purpose. Using a rules-based approach to provide both the floor and the roof for the terms of the corporate mission statement, values can fill the space between and invite everyone – employees, partners, stakeholders alike – inside.

There are many mechanisms through which corporate compliance programs can appeal to employees to make the connection between rules and values. Inspiring voluntary compliance, where employees feel aware of and responsible for the values of the compliance program and connect to them individually, adds weight to the mandatory compliance expected by the rules. Increasing the relatability of the requirements with principles behind them gives people incentive to sign on and go along with the compliance program. Compliance programs can aim to encourage ongoing employee adhesion to the organization’s values-based approach in the following ways, ranging from the lightest touch to the heaviest:

  • Nudges: Simply put, make it possible for employees to make ethical choices by expressing values that promote this and building decision-points into the processes they encounter in their working experiences which reflect those values. Business strategy should coincide with business values, and if it does not, then actions such as setting new standards client acceptance or exiting and reassessing product offerings or market participation are natural consequences of trying to bring the two together. In order for employees to make choices that reflect both individual and organizational integrity, the procedures and standards within which they work should facilitate and support this type of decision-making. Doing the right thing should always be accessible and indeed prompted.
  • Codes: While nudges make values implicit and leave the decision ultimately in the employee’s hands, in codes values are explicit and expectations for adherence to them are formalized. Codes can take a variety of formats, and in some industries regulatory requirements may dictate their scope and even content, but generally speaking, the more concise and accessible the better. Employees at all levels should be able to read, understand, and engage with the code, whether it dictates ethics, conduct, or both, and they should be able to retrieve, review, and ask questions about it whenever they want. A code document should be updated on an ad-hoc basis and reviewed regularly, and it should be seen as a living record of the specific values of the organization which underlie all other policies and procedures in place.
  • Attestations: Once a code is available, employees can be asked to attest to their compliance with it. This can take a very simple form, even just a one-liner of “I attest that I have been in compliance with the requirements set forth in the Code as of the below date.” This can be done once per year (or other regular period of choice) or on an ad-hoc basis. Asking an employee to attest to adherence prompts self-reflection and may also create a space for questions or dilemma discussions, which are important tools for ensuring awareness.
  • Warnings: Warnings may sound punitive, but in reality they can just be reminders. Unlike attestations, which look backwards and ask employees to self-assess based on their past behavior, warnings would accompany present choices or activities. For example, an expense claim form might include a statement on it reminding the submitter that the data on the form should be accurately and honestly reported, and that there are certain expenses which may not be reimbursable or permitted. Providing these warnings at the time the employee is going to take action that checks compliance values brings together all the previous methods – it provides a nudge, makes expectations explicit, and directly asks the employee to consider ethical obligations when making choices in the course of the task.
  • Oaths: Oaths take the most advanced step of ensuring that employees comply with the ethical and compliance expectations of their profession by asking that they voluntarily submit to discipline should they violate these. This submission is by taking an oath and signing it, typically with witnesses and even a level of formalization or ceremony in order to underscore the significance of the commitment and the seriousness of trespassing against it with future misconduct. A very interesting example of a professional oath is the Banker’s Oath in the Netherlands, which is intended to restore trust in the financial sector and banks specifically by requiring that every Dutch employee take an oath to comply with uniform ethical guidelines. To read more about the Banker’s Oath, visit the website of the Dutch independent organization Foundation for Banking Ethics Enforcement (FBEE).

The above methods for encouraging voluntary compliance can be employed by compliance professionals simply and powerfully in routine compliance communications and awareness initiatives. Reminding employees of values – the purpose – helps to heighten the credibility and appeal of rules – the requirement – and provide a mission perspective to their engagement in the compliance program.

The five branches of ethics as applied to compliance principles

Compliance and ethics are related but separate disciplines. In a professional setting each one relies heavily upon the principles and practices of the other, while still maintaining its own distinct character.

Compliance concerns not necessarily the intuitive or collective ideas about right and wrong, nor the legal bright lines about what is permissible or prohibited, but rather the decision points between all of these. The function of compliance in a practical sense is to adjust or create conditions to choices in order to analyze or bridge the gap between good and bad, yes and no. In compliance, ethics provides the values-based approach, while the legal and regulatory guidance provides the rules-based approach. The work of the compliance professional is to attempt to reconcile the two and in that work create a second set of connections, this time between that which is legally acceptable or not, and that which is deemed ethically appropriate or not.

Very simply put, ethics, on the other hand, refers to the standards of behavior by individuals or organizations and the moral principles governing the conducting of an activity by the same. This is a values-based approach to “right” and “wrong,” or what is good for people and the society in which they live and work. The concept of right and wrong behavior is fundamental to ethics and acts as a systematic discipline in order to guide decisions on how to act.

Ethics draws its foundations from five branches, each one of which is useful to inform a practical and discipline perspective for a corporate compliance program.

  • Normative ethics contemplates the questions which arise in consider how one should act morally, in line with the norms and expectations of society or a community/organization in which the actions are taken. What are the different interests at stake and what are the potential consequences and outcomes of the possible actions to be taken? This view is very helpful in ethical decision-making and designing defense strategies to encourage identifying and choosing good decisions while discouraging and removing incentives or rationales for bad decisions.
  • Meta ethics focuses on what morality actually is and means – in general as well as in context. This involves the careful analysis of the level of understanding about moral considerations as well as an analysis of the situational status and scope of it. This approach is imperative for defining a values-based culture and corresponding corporate identity and business strategy. These values must be organic and intrinsic from the beginning in order for them to truly imbed as genuine. If they are imposed upon the business culture with no respect for what original standards were set for the organization at its inception, then a values-based approach to a culture of compliance will not permeate the company’s actions- customer service, product design, hiring and retaining employees – and a strong tone at the top cannot succeed.
  • Applied ethics goes in-depth into the practicality of really using ethical theory in order to analyze actual moral issues in both private and public life. The practical skills inherent for this discipline are incredibly useful for creating the dialogs that support compliance awareness. Taking a critical look at real-life moral issues that would be encountered in one’s personal time or on an everyday basis at work is a very useful way to get comfortable with approaching ethical dilemmas. Dilemma analysis and discussion is key for encouraging a robust culture of compliance at all organizational levels.
  • Moral ethics is the philosophical area of ethics that centers on defining, choosing, and suggesting behavior with classifications of “right” and “wrong” in mind. This practice is the most directly influential in determining standards and expectations for conduct. Elevating moral conduct by clearly defining it as a corporate cultural norm is imperative for encouraging employees to value it as such as well. Senior leadership should genuinely demonstrate this as well, acting as good conduct role models to embody the cultural values and categorizations for understanding the difference between right and wrong and making good choices within that dichotomy.
  • Finally, descriptive ethics is the study of attitudes of individuals or groups of people aimed at characterizing and understanding their beliefs. The objectives of this branch of ethics are very important for compliance risk management because they help to expose heuristics and routines in play that may encourage or hinder ethical decision-making and the cultivation of strong compliance themes within the corporate values. This is crucial for providing positive support for organizational and employee integrity.

Given the above, there are great affinities between the principles of ethics and those of compliance. The two disciplines share prolifically in their application in life in general and specifically in the workplace. It is very useful for compliance professionals to have some foundation in the discipline of ethics and an understanding of the practical application of its system of principles.

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.

Ford Pinto and organizational integrity

The Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s demonstrates vividly that focusing on commercial pursuits at the expense of integrity considerations can have a disastrous effect on consumer safety.  No historical survey of organizational ethics and decision-making is complete without a study of the controversial production of this vehicle.

The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car made and sold by Ford Motor Company from 1970-1980. The design of the car left it vulnerable to fire in the event of a rear-end collision due to the location of the fuel system between the rear axle and rear bumper. Though crash testing indicated heightened risk, and safety was questioned by some engineers, Ford proceeded with manufacturing the vehicle as designed. As early as 1973, Ford began receiving reports of catastrophic injuries in fires after rear-end collisions at low speeds in Pintos. Relying on standard review routines, Ford found no justification for a recall. Issues with the Pinto’s safety and continued non-action on the part of Ford continued until Ford finally recalled the Pinto in 1978, while claiming it was only doing so due to public outcry and still not acknowledging any design defect in the car. Subsequently over 100 lawsuits were brought against Ford in connection to the Pinto.

This is perhaps the seminal case of business choices to value commercial interests over consumer protection. Individual designers and engineers at Ford realized that the Pinto could have safety issues, but they worked under immense time pressures and in a structured, hierarchical project management system where people made decisions that were disconnected from the ultimate outcome of the product. The production of the Pinto was a process dominated by routines that emphasized expediency and profit. Relaxed regulations due to political pressures on the marketplace meant that companies like Ford Motor Company could choose whether it was economical or expedient to meet certain standards rather than making these decisions based on regulatory requirement or safety concerns alone.

The Ford Pinto case also lays bare the “bad apples” theory of ethics, in which corporate scandals that harm the public are often blamed on a bad person doing bad things. In reality, most people involved in these situations are good people who do not intend to do bad things, but make choices in isolation or under duress, as part of routines, which have a knock-off effect and can lead to disastrous results later.

For a very complete and powerful contemporary analysis of the Ford Pinto case, Mark Dowie’s 1977 Pinto Madness article in Mother Jones is a must-read.