A children’s book on corruption

It is rare for the topic of corruption to put a smile on anyone’s face. However, I could not help smiling as I listened to my colleague Patrick Henz’s new audiobook for children: Pepe, the Red Race Car.

In this short story, we follow the adventures of Pepe as he competes in various races around the world. Pepe, who is fair and honest, must decide what to do when he notices a competitor breaking the rules with the help of a race official.

There are many good lessons in this book, from living by your values to speaking up when something is wrong. But if I had to choose one favorite, it would be this: the pleasure one hopes to derive out of winning evaporates when the win results from cheating.

Start with a risk assessment

I recently spoke with a friend who works for an organization that is just starting to consider implementing an ethics and compliance program. His first question to me was “What should I do first?”

His question prompted one of my own, although I was pretty sure I already knew the answer. “Have you conducted a risk assessment?”, I asked.

Of course he hadn’t.

Going through a risk assessment has many benefits. In terms of an E&C program, a risk assessment:

  • Informs what topics should be included in your code of conduct
  • Identifies the policies that your organization needs
  • Determines the scope of your training program
  • Points to the controls you need to put in place
  • Highlights the processes that must be regularly audited

So before you start implementing an E&C program, start with a risk assessment. And if you already have a program, then let your regular risk assessments guide your improvement efforts.

Effective training

You compliance training doesn’t have to be fun. It doesn’t have to be entertaining. Or popular.

It can be, but it doesn’t have to.

If you assume that your employees want to do the right thing, then what your training must do is help them do their job compliantly.

An animated video about the elements of antitrust violations can be entertaining, but the learnings will have faded 6 months later when your sales rep is about to attend a trade show. What she’ll really need at that moment is a boring job aid like a simple checklist of what she must do before, during and after the trade show (e.g. submit the agenda and the minutes to Legal, make a “noisy exit”, etc.).

Just-in-time training. Task-based training. That’s what most front-line employees need.

Think about the approach of safety professionals. Next to every doorway leading onto the shop floor, there is a sign asking employees to wear safety goggles and a bin containing such goggles. No one is simply relying on the safety video that was shown to the employees on their first day on the job.

So why don’t we do the same for legal risks? Why do we continue to rely on once-a-year videos and certifications?

It’s a big task, of course. But we can start small:

  1. Identify your biggest risk
  2. Identify where this risk poses the greatest threat (by geography or product line)
  3. Identify the group of employees closest to the risk (sales, finance, etc.)
  4. Identify the riskiest task performed by these employees
  5. Create a job aid or some other type of task-based training just for them

Then move back up the list and address the other tasks. Then the other groups. Then the other locations. Then select another risk and go back down the list.

It’ll take time but you will be making real progress.

What is it about us?

When employees engage in wrongdoing, internal investigators determine how it was done. From there, management decides on corrective and disciplinary actions.

The ethical leader goes further and asks “What is it about our culture that made them think it was OK, or that they would get away with it?”

The citizens that stormed the US Capitol yesterday will be prosecuted and the building’s security will be enhanced. But our political leaders must go further and ask the same question. What is it about us – about our culture, about our system, about our laws, about how we take care of each other, that led to this?

Good corporate leaders do not simply label wrongdoers as a “bad apples”. Neither should good political leaders.


When we say “please” in English, it is actually short for “if you please”. It implies a request rather than a demand.

Unfortunately, many supervisors take this meaning too literally and consider the word unnecessary when asking subordinates to do something. Their thinking is: the thing needs to be done, whether or not it pleases their subordinates.

Of course, the word “please” also implies appreciation and care. When a boss says “Could you please complete this report by Friday?”, it conveys the following:

  • I need the report by Friday
  • I appreciate your efforts in completing this report by Friday
  • If there are any reasons why this report can’t be completed by Friday, I want you to share them with me

So much meaning in such a small word.

Research by Christine Porath (author of Mastering Civility) shows that 62% of employees reported that they were treated rudely at least once a month in 2016, up from 55% in 2011.

We can do better than this. We can reverse that trend in 2021.

If we please.

HT to Melanie Katzman, author of Connect First.

Translations and culture

I recently wrote a corporate policy that we expect all employees to understand and follow.

The group responsible for deploying this policy asked me for a list of languages that the policy should be translated into. My response was simple: in all the languages spoken by our employees*.

I believe that culture is an outcome of how we do things. And I believe that corporate policies should identify the processes we follow and the behaviors we expect from employees. Thus, if we truly wish to build a culture of compliance, we need to make sure our employees can read and understand our policies.

And there is also a meta aspect to this question: what message about our corporate culture would we be sending if we did not translate these policies?

* More specifically, in the official languages of every country where we operate.

Silver linings

We all hope that this year will be better than last year.

But every year comes with its occasional dark, stormy clouds. The key is to look for the silver linings.

Some suppliers will cheat. Some customers will lie. Some employees will steal. We can choose to see them as bad apples and do nothing, or we can look at each event as an opportunity to improve an element of our systems (code, policy, training, control, audit, investigation).

2021 will be better than 2020 only if we look for opportunities to make it so.

Developing an ethical culture in 2021

I have a personal project that is in motion right now.

I say in motion because I’m not truly taking any action. I’m researching, I’m planning, I’m preparing but I’m not pulling the trigger on any action that would provide me vital feedback on the viability of my project.

And that’s because humans are very good at avoiding criticism and delaying failure. That fear of failure is linked to our fear of being an outcast, which, for the longest time, threatened our survival. So even today, if we are not good at doing something or simply don’t know if we will be good at it, we avoid doing it. We don’t want to risk being criticized or made fun of.

That same fear prevents many managers from addressing ethical dilemmas at work. They have little or no practice discussing ethical issues. Their boss doesn’t do it. It wasn’t part of their classes in college – or it was a stand-alone class that seemed unrelated to the core topics. What if they start an ethical conversation and no one on their team jumps in? Or worse, their boss disagrees with their stand?

Like any habit, getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations takes practice. An easy way to start practicing is to simply ask your team “What do you think about X?” See what they have to say. Don’t push too hard because, like you, they will be uncomfortable. They have the same fears. Just listen. At some point, they will probably turn the question over to you: “What do you think?” If you are not sure, it’s OK to say “I’m not sure. That’s why I wanted to hear from you. I’ll give it some thought and we can revisit next week. Thank you for sharing.”

Start a conversation about business ethics each week and by this time next year you will have practiced over 50 times. And by then, you will be more comfortable, you will be better at it, and when anyone on your team notices something that doesn’t seem quite right, they will bring it up during your weekly meeting.

And then, just like that, you will have planted the seeds of an ethical culture.

Best wishes for 2021.

All eyes on you

A few decades ago you could only learn about organizational culture in academic papers that no one read.

Then professors and writers like Ariely, Covey, Grant and Pink wrote best-selling books that made the academic papers more accessible.

Today you can find daily articles about corporate culture in Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

With today’s wide availability of messages on the importance of culture, which message is the most important for your employees to hear?