Practical Tips for Ethics and Compliance Professionals During the COVID-19 Outbreak
March 9, 2020 Articles,
We recently spent a week in various areas of the U.K. meeting with clients, compliance professionals, and influencers. When we left the U.S., most COVID-19 discussions centered around China and Italy, with no widespread public reports of the virus in the U.K. By the time we departed the U.K., however, many companies had implemented global travel bans and work from home policies; we were freely swapping hand sanitizer during our business lunches and dinners; some meeting attendees canceled due to self-quarantines or desires to avoid public transportation; and the daily news coverage centered around the topic.
For us, this experience was a stark reminder of how quickly things can change in our volatile, fast-paced, hyper-connected world. It also led us to consider the following practical ways ethics and compliance professionals can contribute to their organizations during this period of global tension and uncertainty.
- Ensure an exemplary tone and conduct at the top and middle. A strong and ethical tone among company executives and managers is critically important during this period. Ensure company executives and managers are exemplifying integrity and ethical conduct, as well as respect and support for employees throughout the business. For example, communications regarding travel restrictions and leave policies should be clear and candid, and such policies should be consistently and fairly applied. Further, consider loosening leave policies to allow for school closings, doctor’s visits, and the general need to prepare for potential disruptions at home. Because hourly workers particularly may be impacted by company shutdowns or slowdowns, assess whether your company has the financial resources to compensate them during this period or grant additional paid sick leave. Remind company leadership that just as your business is facing economic pressures and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 impact, your employees and their families likewise are dealing with similar pressures and disruptions.
- Reinforce your company’s core values and code of ethics. The uncertain impact of COVID-19, constant news coverage, and the potential threat to health likely are increasing tensions and stress among employees, which, in turn, may impact how they interact with and treat their colleagues. Remind employees that core values such as respect, ethical behavior, and integrity remain in full force. It is important that any corporate messages issued and policies implemented remain consistent with your organization’s core values and code of ethics. Consider issuing specific reminders of your company’s values and relevant statements from the code of ethics. For example, you may need to remind employees of any non-discrimination principles. Although it is appropriate to consider recent travel destinations in assessing and mitigating potential exposure and legitimate health risks, it is not appropriate to single out, blame, or disparage any race, nationality, or ethnicity. Moreover, certain segments of the population are at greater risk of health complications should they contract COVID-19. Employers will inevitably face tension between the requirement to maintain a safe and healthy work environment and safeguard the health of potentially vulnerable individuals. This also raises potential data privacy concerns with respect to the collection and processing of personal data and sensitive health information from employees. Importantly, ensure employees are not engaged in opportunistic, predatory, and potentially illegal conduct such as price gouging, price inflation, or theft of in-demand goods your company purchases or sells. Finally, remember that some employees may need additional economic or mental health support during this stressful time. Remind employees of resources and company benefits available to them, such as employee assistance programs, emergency child or elder care, or financial support for those facing any economic hardship.
- Identify all compliance policies and procedures that apply or may need to be re-evaluated. Although most corporate compliance policies are drafted broadly enough to account for unexpected events and crises, review corporate compliance materials to ensure they provide adequate guidance for COVID-19 related events. For example, evaluate your organization’s crisis management, business continuity, and emergency communications policies and procedures to ensure they are functioning as intended. Ensure that employees are aware of hotlines and reporting structures so any compliance concerns or issues can be raised during this time. Connect with your investigations team members to make sure they are comfortable conducting interviews and sharing documents via video or conference call and have full capabilities to do so. Unfortunately, some employees may see this as an opportunity to engage in improper behavior. Be prepared to implement a monitoring or auditing protocol to handle the increase of employee expenses the company may incur due to travel and work disruptions, and consider monitoring expense reports and invoices to ensure expenses are compliant and do not contain any red flags or anomalies.
- Test your remote working policy. If your company has implemented or is considering implementing a remote working policy, align with HR to ensure the policy is functioning as intended and your organization finds ways to keep teams engaged and productive, even if it is not business as usual. Although employees in certain departments and seniority levels may be comfortable working from home, it may be an uncomfortable experience for other employees depending on their home environment, internet connection/security, and home working space. Remind employees of restrictions on accessing the company network from unsecure connections or from public computers/locations, or engaging in other practices that are prohibited or could put the company at risk. Consider implementing a trial period where a select number of employees at all levels, departments, and locations test working from home for a few days and report back to help identify any areas of enhancement. Ensure managers are equipped to evaluate these issues and provide their teams with the requisite resources. Finally, confirm with your IT department that corporate VPN and IT systems are set up to allow for enterprise-wide remote working capabilities.
- Reevaluate performance metrics. For employees whose compensation may be severely impacted by COVID-19 disruptions—e.g., hourly workers and other employees who only get paid for on-site work, sales representatives covering international markets, or manufacturing teams in impacted markets—consider adjusting KPIs for the period to relieve pressure associated with meeting performance targets. You want to minimize any risk that employees may feel the need to resort to non-compliant behavior to meet annual performance targets. When business operations return to normal, you want a team that is engaged and eager to contribute.
- Assess third-party procedures and controls. Just as your business operations are disrupted during this time, so too are the third parties with which your company works. For example, their employees also may be working remotely, thereby raising potential cyber and data privacy concerns as to third parties that have access to your data, documents, and systems. Take time to assess relevant third-party policies, procedures, and contracts. Issue reminders of any contractual requirements, such as force majeure clauses, cyber security and data privacy protocols, and the importance of securing sensitive documents and data. If you are facing supply chain or procurement disruption, take time to work with procurement to review vendor contracts and invoices to ensure conduct is compliant and there are no red flags or anomalies.
- Practice what we preach. Compliance is about more than just policies, procedures, and rules—it is also about ethics, integrity, and doing the right thing. As ethics and compliance professionals, we can model ethical behavior in our workplaces and communities. During this difficult time, we can: reach out to vulnerable relatives, co-workers, and friends; support someone in our workplace or community who is advised to stay home, is losing much-needed income during a work shutdown/slowdown, or otherwise may need assistance; cut through the noise and share helpful and accurate (rather than sensational) COVID-19 information; and share reminders, tips, and strategies regarding the need to engage in activities that preserve our physical and mental health and reduce stress.
Should you have any questions about the above topics, please do not hesitate to contact Angela Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lila Acharya at email@example.com.
The primary concern during the COVID-19 outbreak is public health and safety. We hope that you, your families, and your colleagues remain safe and healthy during this challenging time.