Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail: Keys To Raising Employee Awareness of Ethics & Compliance Programs


Between sessions at last week’s Practicing Law Institute conference in New York, I had several conversations with compliance officers about their ethics and compliance program challenges. The common theme among the challenges they shared was that some aspect of their program was stuck, or couldn’t seem to sustain traction.

Challenge: Programs That are Stuck in Neutral

One compliance officer was frustrated by the findings from a recent third-party assessment which revealed that, for the third year in a row, their hotline/helpline call volume was significantly below industry benchmarks. Another was surprised by the number of potential conflicts of interest that were surfacing among sales personnel, in spite of their new code of conduct and updated policies that were published last year.  A third confided that she could not seem to breakthrough to front-line managers who continued to offer only tepid support for her training initiatives.

To be clear, in each case these were experienced compliance officers whose programs had all of the basic and required elements that you would expect. But somehow, their programs were not adding up to an effective whole. As a result, persistent problems continued. 

Root Cause Diagnosis: Program Awareness & Communications Missing the Mark

Diving deeper into these challenges, a common root cause began to emerge. In every case, information that was being provided about each the pertinent aspects of each organization’s ethics and compliance program—through communications, training and awareness efforts—was missing the mark.

For example:

  • The low helpline call volume described by the first compliance officer I talked to could be traced to employees not being aware of how the helpline process works. Employees knew that there was a hotline or helpline, but the call-in and follow-up process was a mystery. This added to their fears of the helpline and became an additional—and unnecessary—hurdle.
  • The second compliance officer’s spike in conflicts of interest cases was rooted in a failure to earn attention amidst an avalanche of emails and priorities that were burying the sales team.
  • And the third compliance officer’s front-line managers simply did not have the time to sort through long and complex training materials and “ethics tool boxes”—no matter how well they were constructed. What was needed was a just-in-time system they could use to select ethics messages when they would do the most good to support their employees.  

Solution: Delivering the Right Message to the Right Audience at the Right Time

Each of these programs needed to improve in the essential task of delivering the right message to the right audience at the right time. While this may seem obvious, it is surprising how often I hear from companies that have not taken the time to develop an awareness and communications plan for their ethics and compliance program. To create a best-practice plan, consider the best ways to:

  • Prioritize Messages: What messages need to be delivered and to whom? Targeting the right message to the right audience is critical. In our above example, the sales team did not need to receive every ethics message on every topic. Targeted messaging about gifts, entertainment and conflicts would be far more effective.
  • Choose the Right Timing: Coordinate the ethics and compliance message with other corporate initiatives. Avoid the end-of-the-month crunch times when stress is high and time is short.
  • Diversify Communications & Awareness Formats: Not everyone will respond to the same media. Posters are good for some and intranets for others. Emails may be effective, but not when they are lost in a back-logged inbox or are too easily deleted. For people inundated with emails, a different approach may be necessary to cut through the electronic clutter. A brief hand-written note might be surprisingly effective.

Awareness & Communications Planning and Execution Essential for Program Success

The key to success is thoughtful and balanced awareness and communications planning. As has been said by others: failure to plan is planning to fail. When so much time and so many resources are put into designing and creating a helpline, a new code of conduct or a training program, compliance professionals must avoid letting the effort fail to hit the mark due to a failure to plan how, when and to whom the information is going to be shared.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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