Ethics & Compliance Perspectives: COVID-19’s Impact and Return to Work Considerations

Highlights from our webinar, “Roundtable Q&A: COVID-19’s Impact on Ethics and Compliance Programs and Training.”

On May 27, 2020, hundreds of ethics, compliance, and risk professionals from around the world joined a panel of experts from SAI Global to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, the micro and macro impact it is having on our industry and the organizations we work with, and share perspectives from their personal and professional experiences over the last few months.

Below is a transcription of that panel, edited for clarity, which you can read at your leisure or as an accompaniment to our on-demand recording of the session. 


Before we dive in, can everyone introduce themselves to our audience?

Hello, my name is Steffi Prange and as a business development manager, I cover the area of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I'm part of SAI Global for over five years now, and I started out as an implementation coordinator for our learning management system before joining the account management team and helping our clients to implement and develop ethics and compliance programs.

Hi, everyone! My name is Kari Marcum, and I work within our client success organization, and I support clients directly in creating and deploying effective compliance programs. And I'm based out of Watertown, Massachusetts, I've been working in the industry and for SAI for a little over eight years.

My name is Jon Bricker, I'm based in Detroit, Michigan, I work on the commercial side of the business and also dabble in consulting. I've been involved in ethics and compliance for 20 years, and before that I was a practicing defense side lawyer in Chicago.

Hi everyone, I'm Charles Freericks in Santa Monica, California. I'm a Learning Designer here at SAI Global, and been in E&C training for the past 15 years in a multitude of roles, from running a content department to being an account executive to creating training for a large number of organizations.

I’m Rebecca Turco, based in Boston, Massachusetts, and I run the E&C learning business for SAI Global. I've been at SAI for almost seven years now, in various roles, and I am really excited to be joined by my colleagues to really talk about what's going on, and how we're seeing our customers and community adapting their compliance and ethics programs. 


If you had to summarize the impact COVID-19 has had on the ethics and compliance industry in one or two sentences, what would you say?

Jon Bricker: I liken this to 18 or 19 years ago, with Enron and WorldCom, which is something that I was in the industry to observe. It's truly a watershed event and opportunity. I truly believe that the stance organizations take toward ethics and compliance now is not only going to make a difference in the short-term, with how they come out of things, but also, it's going to impact culture across the organization for years and possibly decades to come.

Kari Marcum: Yeah, Jon, I agree with what you've said. I think this is absolutely a time for reflection and re-assessment, and, as we all decide how to move forward and past this, for compliance specifically, we need to think about how do we support the business moving forward? How do we support in a time of change? And how do we prepare for this in the future? 

Charles Freericks: What I'm experiencing is that so many are working from home now. It's become a new norm for a lot of people who've never experienced it before. E&C training needs to shift to accommodate the ways it's changing company compliance exposure. Things from data privacy to online harassment, which is a new one we’re going to be dealing with, are all coming into play.

Steffi Prange: Yes, I can see similar things. I think there's a lot of pressure on all employees working from home and the challenges associated with it, but also achieving one’s targets. I think this is also a great chance for any company to really look at what kind of compliance culture they have within their company, what they can achieve right now, and what they can take away to actually promote those values moving forward.

Rebecca Turco: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think this is a very interesting time and a defining moment. I was lucky enough to be on a panel a few weeks ago with two compliance officers at different companies, and it really boils down to what's important now, right? What do we focus on, and how do we think about the risks that our employees face right now versus a compliance program that in January probably looked a lot different than it does today, and getting employees the right information to make the right decisions.


POLLING QUESTION: How has COVID-19 most directly impacted your ethics and compliance program? It has made us (fill in the blank):

Roundtable Q&A Session: First poll question


Rebecca Turco: Steffi, Jon or Charles, can you comment on the responses here about adjusting program frequency and those other topics?

Jon Bricker: My first observation is that it probably depends a little bit on where an organization is in their own program maturity. If you divide the responses into three different categories, there are companies that are new businesses looking to get a program off the ground and they don't really have the momentum factor. Then you have programs somewhere in the middle, that are sort of in-flight and looking to continue the momentum, and then you have some very mature programs that have the benefit of having a cadence which been built up over years to build upon, and they're certainly in a bit of a different position. 

So I have to acknowledge that different people are different, but one of the things that we're seeing is a tremendous focus on business necessity and having people do things that are operationally relevant and time-effective. With that, we're seeing an even greater increase of campaign orientations and campaign approaches, which take into account shorter length content and smarter content that can really deliver what people need to know, particularly for the immediate period of time here, until we can regain a more traditional cadence.

But right now, in our conversations with Chief Ethics and Compliance Officers, they're all under a lot of pressure; if not for monetary resources, certainly for how they use the time of folks that are really kind of bombarded with all these different messages and pressures coming from the business. One way to get a seat at the table is for people to come back to the table with campaign approaches and different content types and formats, and different ways to sort of address compliance, and maybe they weren't doing 12 or 18 months ago.

Charles Freericks: From a scripting standpoint, I think the content, for me, has not really seen a shift yet. But what I've seen a shift is in the second most common answer; definitely the cultural standpoint. It seems to me that there's a change in perception from people being providers of commodities to being providers in service of mankind, and suddenly you've got everyone very proud of what they make.

In some cases that makes sense, but even in others, like making cars and providing insurance, these are things that people need to get by in this crisis. Suddenly, we're all helping mankind, and I think that is a culture that breeds ethical behavior. That is a culture far more open to ethics and compliance. It all wraps into a behavior shift to “how can I be of service? How can I do my part?”

Steffi Prange: I'm very interested in the long-term effects this will have on values and culture. Will set values be shifted or heightened throughout the crisis? Will we begin to adopt ones we wouldn’t have thought of beforehand? I think many will use the crisis and the moments of “downtime” to really evaluate company culture and values, and how to reach out to employees and give them a way to live and embody those values, help them feel seen and recognized, and keep them engaged until this is over.


When it comes to the impacts of COVID-19, there are really two core areas for us to divide the conversation; the immediate and short-term impacts of this pandemic and the moment we’re living in, and then the long-term implications and impact of the decisions we make today and what new ways we will operate as we move forward. Let’s start with the short-term and move into the long-term as we progress through this conversation.

We’ve seen some of our customers and peers really seize the moment and try to make the most of it, while others have taken a slow down or pause approach. From your perspective, is now the time to be patient or aggressive when it comes to the operations and strategies of your ethics and compliance program?

Kari Marcum: What's interesting is that we've seen it both ways. There are a lot of factors that I think different organizations are taking into account. In the early days of the stay at home orders and shutdowns, I saw a lot of companies really eager to get training out to people, especially organizations that had large sales groups that could not go out and do their jobs. So consider a pharmaceutical company, for example; obviously their sales reps are not going to call on any doctors or anything, so they wanted to take advantage of the time, not just to fill their time with something, but really to take advantage of their undivided attention and say “here's a great time to focus on competition and doing business with integrity” and all of those important pieces that sales groups need to be reminded of, or should get consistent training on. You’re at home, let's take advantage of that. That was the first group of companies that were like “Let's do this. We've got to get some training out and make sure that folks know on a regular basis what they should be paying attention to.”

Then other companies started sending out training; whether they had their annual code of conduct launch for their annual compliance program coming up later in May or June, now that their entire workforce is working from home, they’re thinking let's take advantage of that opportunity and give them a chance to take this annual training now and have it done early so that they can focus on values and integrity, and as Charles was saying, taking some of that pride in their company and pride in what they're doing, and pulling that into the trainings, and making sure that it's not just about “let's abide by the code” but also how you embed that in your culture and change that into a positive learning experience.

So the first wave of things that we saw was a lot of “let's get this done,” because especially when people are going to go back to work, things are going to be hectic. In this new normal, there's a lot to consider in terms of business pressures. We all still have goals and KPIs and things that we have to focus on, and as we're getting back into the office, whenever that might happen, we still need to focus on doing that with ethics and integrity. We should all be thinking about how we support our employees as we're returning to work, and making sure that the focus can be on business pressures and still doing your job, but within the guidelines.

Steffi Prange: Interesting. In the beginning of this pandemic, I saw an overall slowdown learning activity just as everyone had to get used to the new situation and working from home, which is a new thing, especially for many companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We also saw compliance working with parts of the business continuity team in terms of a plan to react to the crisis.

But what we've now seen, now that everyone is somewhat settled into the whole pandemic situation, is that people have more free time now to start thinking about their program, consider the production of new training, and reevaluating the messages and values they want to communicate. I’ve also noticed that people have generally slowed down a little bit because they are sharing their attention while working from home with their family and some other responsibilities that they normally wouldn't have while in the office, and they don’t want to overburden their employees. As a result, we’ve seen a lot more interest in our shorter courses as an alternative to a longer course that they may typically use in their program, so they are more conscious of how people are spending their time.

Jon Bricker: I think that as companies “restart” or begin to bring employees back into certain work locations throughout the next 6 to 12 months it's going to be really important for ethics and compliance to be vocal, acknowledge the truth of the present, acknowledged business changes and business reality, and really tailor their messaging to the kinds of situations that are unfolding. Not just for people in their working lives, but also, personally, because this has had a huge impact for parents of children, for example, who are teaching at home while doing everything else.

One of the most important things that the research shows is that when you're trying to project ethics and compliance messages, you have to really be situational in the sense that you're talking about types of situations that people can really relate to. The reality is, the situation that someone could relate to a year ago is probably different from what they're relating to right now. So as people think about program direction, it's going to be important to bake that into the program and really acknowledge those kinds of things to ensure the program is relevant, and that ethics and compliance is a message that comes across with the right tone. I think in that sense, programs should take an aggressive stance at revamping in that kind of a way.

Rebecca Turco: Yeah, absolutely. The idea of compliance having a voice in an organization, where maybe you only can push out training once a year, or maybe your campaign and compliance program is set for a certain period of months, and it has to be a certain amount of time, and when it's over and done with, it needs to shift. That's a cultural and mentality shift. To know what the important key messages are if you think about what we're doing now versus in six months.

It's really about that shift and knowing that 60 consecutive minutes of content to get through maybe isn't as important and isn't as relevant, and to take a step backwards in thinking about the program strategy. As we all move through this and have conversations about next step, we have to make sure that the information being shared is meaningful and it can be spread out throughout a year. 


POLLING QUESTION: Slowing down or speeding up? Which side of the coin do you find yourself on?

Roundtable Q&A: Second poll question


Rebecca Turco: These results are interesting, and I think goes to a little bit of where you are in your program, and what industry and business you work in, right?  We ran a similar question on our Ethisphere webinar, and 31% were delivering the same amount of training, but focusing on different risk areas. 31% were delivering less training, 28% didn't change their plans, and then 10%, we're delivering more. So, it is a mixed bag, and it's going to depend on your program and your industry. But I do think that the conversation helps you think about how you continue to assess and plan your program moving forward.


Renowned Austrian management consultant Peter Drucker famously said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In the midst of this global pandemic, organization’s cultures and strategies are both being tested and pushed to the limits. From your perspective, is culture or strategy more important in this moment, and why?

Steffi Prange: I think culture is immensely important for an organization right now to be successful and to get motivation and morale up, but also to ensure that they stay compliant. I believe that managers need to act as leaders, which I can relate to in this situation. I know that when I have a problem, I tend to turn my line manager and ask them for advice on what is going on, and I think that line management has a very vital role within a company right now to really uphold values and the compliance culture be implemented. They are really the day-to-day person that people might turn to. With the increased pressure that is on everyone within the company, it's really important for them to try and channel this pressure in a very productive manner and impact employees in a positive way. 

Jon Bricker: When an organization is confronted with something that's sudden like this was, culture is the thing that comes to the fore, because you can't anticipate it with strategy and you can’t anticipate it with policies.

We've seen a huge increase in values-based programs, values-based codes of conduct, and this is really the exact type of situation when an organization can fall back on those values frameworks, because there's no roadmap or blueprint for this. In so many cases, at least early on, employees and leaders are left to navigate unknown territory with their values. That's where I think the cultural investments that organizations have made really help see their way through this. As time elapses, organizations can begin to readdress it from a strategy standpoint and think about how it all impacts program structure and policies and things like that. 

For example, if you're anticipating that people are going be working from home for some time, your policies are probably going to have to reflect a different expectation or different sense than if you 95% – 98% of your workforce is working in office locations. Over time, you can re-strategize, but at least on the very front end, the cultural piece has been so important. In particular, we've seen organizations with strong cultures that didn't really have to deliberate over what the right thing to do was; making a profit or to do what's right for people. I think you'll continue to see that, and I think it’s a good example of why organizations now our so values-oriented, and why making those cultural and values-oriented investments over time is so important.

Charles Freericks: I was actually struck in the Ethisphere webinar that both of the customers we work with talked about kindness, and how the messaging itself needs to shift now. Everyone is under this tremendous stress; levels of stress that we haven't experienced before, and we're all kind of playing by rules we don't know, and because of that, it's not necessarily the time for people to say “if you don't finish this training tomorrow, this, this, and this bad is going to happen,” but rather coming at people with kindness, compassion, and empathy, and approaching everyone with the mindset that we're all fighting that same struggle. 

We're all in rooms that we wouldn't necessarily be in when meeting a large group of people, and that new reality puts us in a place where a little bit of compassion and a little bit of kindness goes a really long way in actually getting stuff done. It's actually something that I hope will stick with us, and stay with us, even as a return to whatever the new normal.

Kari Marcum: As Charles was mentioning, I think everyone's emotions are right under the surface right now, and have been personally and professionally. What has been most effective is using the voice of ethics and compliance training to talk about that kindness and the reasons why it's so important to do your job the right way. 

It's not just because we're trying to tell you what to do. It's because we have to work together, for yourself, your fellow colleagues and for the organization, and tying it back into having something to be prideful for. It's not that very direct “these are the laws and you have to abide by them” message; All of that is still true. You still have to do all of that, but I think the voice of it is a little bit softer and more kind. We're tying that into people's emotions, and I think that's really effective. Right now, if you think about the commercials you see on TV, yes, there are a lot of memes about them, but the tone of everything has changed, and I think we need to do that in our voices as well within our companies.

Jon Bricker: The Chairman of one of the auto companies in Detroit was interviewed on one of the business-centric TV shows shortly after things kind of broke in March, and they were actively engineering and working on a ventilator project. During the interview, they were asked “How does this impact your profitability? What's your outlook for the quarter?” And I was struck with the confidence that this person had in answering a question, basically saying, “we're doing what's right. We don't really have any idea what the impact is going to be, but we're going to do it because it's the right thing to do, and we're called upon to do it.” 

I think that type of statement really helps that organization’s culture. To some extent, the financial community and analyst community seem to be giving a little bit of latitude to let organizations do the right thing and focus on the needs of humanity versus the immediate needs of profitability. In these situations where leaders have “seized the moment,” so to speak, it sends really powerful cultural messages from an ethics and compliance standpoint that are really going to be valuable for those companies in the long run.

Steffi Prange: I think that's exactly what we've been talking about, and that's something that could then feedback into the Code of Conduct. These might not be easy things to do, but you do it anyway, because it's the right thing. One of our customers in Germany has recently said that wearing a mask is now mandatory, and they have asked another company to masks for all the employees and their families and sent them out in the post to their employees. It’s a small token that says that “your safety is important to us; use this mask and together we will get through this.” These boosts in morale help people remember that integrity is important and will have a big impact on company culture, and in turn, compliance culture.

Charles Freericks: People seeing their leaders do the right thing is going to do is shift the convo around E&C; it's not to say that they were not doing the right thing before, but I think so many conversations around E&C, which obviously matters to all of us, are now also shifting to “we've made these masks and we're saving people's lives” and when you're working for people who are doing the right thing, you respond to them in that same positive way.

Rebecca Turco: In this pandemic and the space that we're all sitting in; it seems like you can strip away what company I work for, or your specific job, or the number of people you manage, because we're all sitting at that level of “we're all in this together.” Every story, commercial, manager decision, internal communication and over-communication, is around this realization that there is stress and pressures around the work-life balance for everyone. So our ability to relate to each other is easier than usual, compared to when you may sit and take a training course, and you aren't sure why you're getting it or how it relates to your job. Leaning into the comradery and things we share as we come out of this is really going to be key to keep that momentum going.


We have seen a seismic shift to working from home. Television and online pundits are predicting that many office-based employees may never return to the office full time. Twitter recently announced that employees can now work from home forever if they choose to, with Facebook, Salesforce and Google recently extending WFH until Jan 1, 2021. What does a work-from-home subset mean for E&C training? Are there additional risks we should be training on?

For our panel’s answer to this question, our question on how E&C programs can prepare for the next emergency or business interruption, their perspectives on the future of E&C programs post-pandemic, and our full audience Q&A, watch our on-demand recording of this roundtable conversation.


To learn more about how SAI Global can help your organization navigate COVID-19, visit our pandemic resource center for E&C learning and risk, or explore our website to see everything we can do.