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The Great 2020 Pivot: How Ethics & Compliance Teams Can Seize the Moment

In risk and compliance, change is a constant – and 2020 has been full of it. As organizations try to keep up, it’s time for ethics and compliance teams to lean into the value they provide to help spring forward. 

A majority of 2020 “Trends and Predictions” reports on ethics, compliance and risk published through December of 2019 accurately pinpointed the need to consider new California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) laws in a data privacy program. However, of the many impactful events envisioned for 2020, few predicted a life-altering global pandemic and cultural revolution for equal rights. If there were ever a “perfect storm” of unexpected challenges and opportunities for ethics, compliance and risk professionals, we're in it. 

The pandemic’s global health crisis, economic disruption, and quick adoption of remote work at a massive scale put teams and businesses out of balance. The uncertainty of what’s next and symptomatic social unrest and inequities that are now top of mind, compounded by new family work/life balance dynamics at home, add even more pressure, stress and psychological vulnerability about what the future holds for us. 

Under these trying circumstances, would I bribe someone to close a deal to hit my number so I can pay my mortgage? No, but groups like the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners believe that the added work, added pressures and "economic upheaval caused by the pandemic" are "creating the perfect storm for fraud risk" and "an environment that's ripe for bribery."

Our complicated “new normal” situation and its impact on leadership and organizational ethics and behaviors is an active topic of discussion among compliance professionals, as reflected by both high attendance and engagement rates during recent webinars and panel discussions.

From my own experiences in the field and the conversations I've had with colleagues and community members, there is one core takeaway that I feel I need to share.

Now, more than ever before, ethics and compliance leaders should have a seat at the executive table and be empowered to contextualize further the necessity of what our practice accomplishes and the resources we need to do it well. 

2020 has created a new series of divergent risks to deal with, but the other risks you spent 2018 and 2019 trying to manage and mitigate are still there too! Missteps or setbacks now are exceptionally debilitating. The new June 2020 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance makes one thing clear from my perspective: there is no “get out of jail free” card for a relaxed or ineffective compliance program because of societal changes taking place around the world. 

Whatever your company's cultural challenges were before, they’re even more challenging now. “Waiting for things to settle down” is not a strategy I recommend for ethics and compliance programs that may be jockeying for prioritized positioning internally against other operational components of a business. Your time and resources need to remain focused.

As my friend and colleague Caterina Bulgarella wrote in her Strategic Culture Framework Report, your workforce’s ethical capacity is being challenged and tested even more during times like these. The likelihood of delegating and passing down ethical dilemmas from executives to directors to managers is all but certain, regardless of what culture you’ve built. 

So, what can you do?

I’ve been advising on best practices in ethics and compliance since the ethical and legal dilemmas of Enron and WorldCom were “breaking news” and have a few thoughts on how your ethics and compliance program can make it through.

  • Be functional: Do not show a reduction in commitment to doing what’s right or scale back. 
  • Be accessible: Meet your workers where they are and be flexible to how they interact with the information they need – whether that’s mobile, in a virtual meeting or something new. 
  • Be strategic: There are many distractions in the world right now – unbundle your training experiences into smaller chunks, delivered through a series of campaigns, instead of all at once.
  • Be constant: You are fighting for attention and need to help lead through this – your voice matters right now, and people need to hear it. So communicate loudly and proudly and always think about the situation and context of your message before you share it. 
  • Be efficient: “Seat time” is not a metric of success or indicator of an effective program – doing less can be more impactful than adding more and more activities. Whether you want to call it adaptive learning, microlearning or another term (yes, they’re all different), focus your message on key learning objectives to ensure they contextually align with your goals and what you expect of employees. 
  • Be fresh: If you do not acknowledge the truth of the present moment and change your messaging (or content) to address current events, you run the risk of being ignored completely. Even the briefest executive message about what’s happening can make an impact. 

This remarkable year presents challenges and opportunities for ethics and compliance leaders and the programs they support in their organizations. The sustained commitment, focus, and investment that organizations make now will pay exponential dividends in the months and years to come.

Ethics and compliance have the opportunity right now to make a strategic contribution to the business, perhaps like no other role or function. Now is the time to seize the moment.


Visit our pandemic information center, which includes reading materials, podcasts, shareable videos, and best-practice guidance around managing business continuity, ethics and compliance, workforce health and safety, and risk management as we all navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Learn more about Ethics and Compliance Learning from SAI Global.

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