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Read & React: “How to Build a Company that Actually Values Integrity” by Robert Chesnut in HBR

Read & React is a new series featuring real conversations and email exchanges from members of our Learning team while we all work remotely to solve the challenges of global ethics, compliance and risk teams.

In this edition, SAI360's team of Learning designers, content managers, and product designers discuss a Harvard Business Review article on culture, reporting, and the code of conduct: “How to Build a Company that Actually Values Integrity” by Robert Chesnut (July 30, 2020), the former chief ethics officer at Airbnb.

Anne: Have you seen this excellent article on HBR about promoting integrity in the workplace? 

Charles: What a terrific article, thanks for sharing it! While at first glance, I felt my hackles rise as I sensed it was a straight-out attack on the online learning Code of Conduct experience. It’s really a complimentary piece. The ideas it brings up are good ones that I’ve heard other companies talk about too. In one company I used to work with, every conference call started with a safety or ethical reminder. 

The part of this that was absolutely new to me, and I find brilliant, is the concept of shining a bright light on the reporting process. Yes, I’ve written a thousand times and again about how the company takes all reports seriously, and your identity will be kept private to all extent possible. What I have never seen before is a walk-through of the reporting process (go to this URL, press this button, a chat will pop up, explain your situation). 

What do others think? It’s like being handed the steering wheel by a professional driver. If someone is being bothered by her manager or suspects a co-worker of theft, this type of thing could well produce a real uptick in reporting that is about significant issues. 

Jason: Thanks, Charles – some great points, in particular regarding the reporting process. I, too, have designed numerous courses, which state the importance of reporting and sometimes also provide a direct link to the reporting process itself (e.g., a hotline). Still, I usually have little expectation that many will click on it.

My starting point is to look at any business problem for which a learning experience might be part of the solution, in terms of the desired change. In E&C, this often comes in the form of recognizing “what are people doing that they should not, and what are they not doing that they should?” Then identifying what needs to change in the various associated groups of people in terms of knowledge, attitude, and skills and their transfer to the workplace (what I like to call activation).

How to Build a Company that Actually Values Integrity by Robert Chesnut in HBR

When considering E&C reporting, what I’ve found is that after a typical Code of Conduct training, most people generally know whether their company has a reporting hotline/process. They usually have the skills to track it down and use it should the need arise. But the big gap is in terms of attitude; in particular, the deficit in trust they have that their organization will treat them fairly and without negatively impacting career progression.

This is a theme that emerged very clearly from our recent competency and root-cause-analysis sessions with Ellen Cobb – our excellent Sexual Harassment SME. It highlighted how so often victims of (or witnesses to) sexual harassment incidents (often involving senior leaders or top performers) simply choose to move on, typically by resigning or requesting a transfer, rather than risking reporting something that so often leads to negative personal consequences.

This appears to be a familiar story in a wide variety of E&C contexts. After all, how many whistle-blowers do we ever hear about who don’t, in some significant way, regret their decision to report? It doesn’t seem to matter a great deal whether E&C awareness training tells them all about “our values” and “our non-retaliation policy.” Instead, what seems to matter in terms of reporting (and apparent lack of it) is building genuine trust with employees. It’s about supporting a change in organizational culture, not just knowledge or skills.

As learning designers, we need to think about how we can help our clients build ethical cultures. This means thinking carefully about where and in whom we need to encourage positive change. For example, do we continue to just tell employees about non-retaliation policies? Or do we focus our attention on helping senior leaders and HR managers convince employees they genuinely have their back if they have something to report? This is our challenge.

These are all examples of opportunities we have to stretch beyond E&C awareness solutions, and design richer solutions that genuinely and measurably impact the people-risk our customers face. 

Cate: Thank you for this excellent discussion. I am about to start work on the [customer] Code of Conduct for 2021 and found this to be very helpful when talking about their “Speak Up” section. 

Christine: Anne, thanks for sharing! I think this article reflects what we’re seeing some of our clients embracing. Not just in their code, but changes in their culture and across their other learning opportunities. I think we can keep ethical culture and values top of mind in our learning design.

Chris: Thanks for sharing, Anne! It’s nice to pick my head up from Customizer once and while and think about this higher-level stuff. Charles, I agree with the idea of showing the reporting process. 

I know we often link to a reporting site or provide a phone number, but showing someone actually going through the process makes it feel more familiar and accessible, which I think can build at least some trust. 

Showing someone going through the reporting process in something like this would, at least, make the process feel less foreign.

That said, as Jason points out and the article emphasizes, hearing values from leadership, repeated over time, goes a long way towards building that trust. So I think showing the process is something that we can do between the individual employee and us, but we also need ways to influence leadership specifically.

Concluding thoughts 

This exchange was edited for clarity and published with the permission of all participants involved. We look forward to bringing you more insights and perspectives from our team as we collaborate to address the unique circumstances 2020 has presented.

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