We have another report this week studying how corporate ethics and compliance functions weathered the pandemic-induced challenges of 2020 — and overall, compliance officers were pretty chuffed about how their organizations held firm to ethical values despite difficult circumstances.
The study comes from LRN, which surveyed 650 ethics, compliance, and legal officers at organizations around the world. The two headline numbers: 79 percent of respondents said their corporate culture has grown stronger thanks to how they coped with the pandemic; and 82 percent said their companies emphasized ethical values rather than rules and procedures, to motivate employees to do the right thing.
Figure 1, below, expands on those points. In multiple ways, compliance officers said, their senior leadership teams gave high priority to ethics, values, and strong workplace culture as businesses dealt with the pandemic last year.
OK, I don’t doubt these numbers — but how, exactly, did businesses make ethical values and workplace culture a high priority during the crisis?
The LRN report included a few examples. One was chemicals manufacturer Braskem, which makes plastics critical to the production of personal protective equipment. So in early 2020 as the pandemic struck with full force, Braskem pulled together dedicated teams that lived on-site in the manufacturing plants for 28 days. The company established living quarters and on-site kitchens, gave employees personal devices to talk with loved ones at home, and raised wages.
More broadly, we saw many other businesses last year raise wages for essential workers, or keep providing healthcare benefits even for workers laid off from employment, or donating equipment to hospitals. That all counts as putting ethics and values first.
We should also note that other data from other sources tells a similar tale. Earlier this year the Edelman Trust Barometer published its 2021 report on perceptions of organizational trust, and found evidence of a “trust bubble” that emerged in the middle of 2020. Meaning, people became more trusting in business, government, the media, and other organizations as the pandemic was raging — primarily because those large institutions did more to help frightened and vulnerable individuals.
More Practical Compliance Challenges
The LRN report also looked more deeply at the specific changes compliance officers made to their program operations as a result of the pandemic. Here the news is more mixed.
For example, 52 percent said they customized their training in 2020 to incorporate pandemic-related risks; and 47 percent said they revised the training schedules and rollout of their curriculum. That makes sense; the shift to remote work for so many employees threw a lot of plans out the window last year.
On the other hand, only 24 percent said they responded to the pandemic by offering training on mobile devices; and only 36 percent said they began using shorter, more targeted courses.
I’m not sure how alarming those numbers are. For example, most white-collar employees have computer access at home already, including their own mobile devices. Whatever courses you could stream to their work terminals, you could just as easily stream to their homes. And if we’re all striving to be as work-like as possible even while working from home, maybe shorter videos aren’t necessary.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has challenged how compliance officers do other parts of your jobs. Take a look at Figure 2, below.
Headaches around remote investigations, increased risk of fraud and other misconduct, and less effective oversight of remote employees — those should all sound quite familiar to compliance officers.
My question: How do compliance officers overcome those challenges in 2021 and beyond, as the pandemic’s immediate threat recedes?
It seems to me that corporations can pursue two basic strategies here. We can either push for a prompt return to normal work life (read: everyone back into the office!). Or compliance officers can look for new technologies or program operations that will help to solve Figure 2’s problems while a significant number of people continue to work remotely.
I suspect a big part of the answer depends on how well vaccination programs unfold in the United States and around the world — even more than how quickly the economy rebounds throughout the rest of the year. If vaccination keeps pushing infections and illness downward, then the business case to invest in new technologies gets harder, while the case to revert to pre-pandemic work practices gets easier.
Where Innovation Will Still Happen
One other intriguing point from the LRN survey: that lots of compliance officers do expect to invest in making their Code of Conduct and policies more interactive; and to enhance communications between the compliance function and the rest of the enterprise. See Figure 3, below.
Those are all trends that compliance officers mentioned to me throughout 2020 as I asked them how the pandemic was forcing change at their organizations. Of course, we’ve all been talking about more interactivity and collaboration for years — but the pandemic pulled action on those ideas forward, from gauzy “we’ll get to them sometime in the 2020s” to “crap, we need to do this right now, this quarter.”
So the pandemic was an accelerant, bringing necessary trends into reality more quickly. There are worse ways to suffer through a crisis.