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Why a culture of compliance starts from the top down: The C-Suite’s role

What are the characteristics of an organizational culture of compliance?

Does it feature a strong commitment to compliance principles? Adequate budget and resources that support those principles? Recognition of and reward for compliant behavior? Accountability and consequences? Employees who feel inspired to act compliantly and safe to report violations?

A culture of compliance includes all these strengths, cemented by leadership fully committed to the ideals of ethics in action. When the C-suite embraces compliance, employees follow. When leaders merely accept compliance as something they “have to do,” employees may adopt the same apathy and put the business at risk. Unfortunately, some organizations miss golden opportunities to set a high bar with their actions and policies. For example, New York state enacted a sweeping sexual harassment training law, only to see the state Senate miss the deadline—a date it helped codify—for implementing such training with its own employees. What kind of message is sent when a “champion” of compliance fails at the principles it says should be upheld?

The example leadership sets means everything when building a culture of compliance. Here is a closer look at why compliance needs to start from the top down.

The culture of fear

Too often, employees hesitate to report harassment or point out noncompliance because they fear retaliation. For example, in a survey from CareerBuilder, 72 percent of responding employees who’ve been sexually harassed did not report the incident, and 54 percent did not confront the person doing the harassing. If employees don’t feel safe to take action to protect themselves, their coworkers, their customers, and, ultimately, the company itself, that’s obviously a serious problem. By believing and empowering employees—and following through with strong action when necessary—the C-suite prioritizes workers’ well-being and sends a clear signal that noncompliant, unethical, illegal, and/or immoral behavior is not tolerated. This dispels the culture of fear, thus leading to improved productivity and less attrition.

Taking compliance seriously

When it comes to any part of compliance—including cybersecurity, conflicts of interest, and anti-money laundering guidelines—employees are less likely to follow the rules if they see leadership not doing the same. After all, if your boss isn’t taking a compliance best practice seriously, what incentive is there for you to make the effort? Committing to best practices across the board, from the CEO down to the interns, promotes a culture of compliance by showing that everyone in the organization has a responsibility and is in this together.

It can’t be just lip service

Plenty of organizations have policies and mission statements promoting compliance, diversity, and ethics. These declarations and documents look good on paper or on a website, but without a plan to enact, enforce, and evolve those words, the sentiment behind the policies is ultimately hollow. When you see a business in the news that suffered a data breach, was busted by the SEC, or failed miserably with diversity, more than likely, it had some sort of policy that was supposed to prevent the disaster and just didn’t live up to it.

A culture of compliance follows through with its policies; the C-suite can lead the way by walking the walk and not just talking the talk. That means celebrating successes, striving for improvement, being proactive so that noncompliance can be avoided, and taking immediate steps when a problem does arise. In other words, it means truly living up to that mission statement the company is so proud of.

The importance of training

The average employee doesn’t wake up one day as a compliance expert—particularly in complex topics such as anti-corruption or anti-money laundering. A culture of compliance not only teaches employees the things they need to know to keep the company and each other safe but also gets them enthused to learn and accept the compliance responsibility they all bear.

Here are some benefits of great training:

  • Through interactive, relevant training scenarios, employees see how compliance directly impacts them, stay engaged with the training, and apply what they’ve learned to their everyday roles.
  • A sort of muscle memory builds when employees are fully engaged with the training, thus helping them later recognize potential compliance situations and act decisively.
  • As compliance-related guidelines and best practices debut or change, training can adapt as well to update employees’ knowledge.
  • Resources such as microlearning and job aids inspire learning and encourage employees to contribute to the culture of compliance all year long.

The stakeholder support the C-suite can provide for training is invaluable to strengthening the culture of compliance an organization is hoping to build. When executives prioritize, promote, and even participate in training, everyone gets the message that it’s important.

A true friend in compliance

Organizations don’t need to attempt compliance training on their own. A top-notch training partner offering innovative solutions and tools takes much of the heavy lifting out of the process. In addition to expertise, support, and guidance, the best vendors also offer solutions rooted in adaptive training, in which courses automatically adjust to the actions and learning of the user. For example, if an employee is struggling with certain compliance concepts, the training will steer him or her into additional scenarios emphasizing those concepts. In this way, workers effectively get the knowledge they require in a journey potentially unique to them.

Adaptive training also produces rich data intelligence that can be used to drive compliance, ethical decision-making, and continual learning strategies. With the C-suite embracing such a platform, employees also get on board with the program—and the culture of compliance flourishes.

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