The coronavirus pandemic has tested both the strengths and weaknesses of ethics and compliance programs everywhere, leaving companies with little warning or time to prepare.


Michael Blackshear

At Compliance Week’s 2020 Virtual Conference on Monday, a panel of experts shared some helpful tips for chief ethics and compliance officers on how to lead successfully in a time of great uncertainty.

The start of the panel discussion–titled ”Charting a Path Through Chaos: Ethics and Compliance in the COVID-19 Crisis” and sponsored by LRN–focused on an issue that has been especially jolting to everybody: the sudden necessity of having to transition to a remote work environment practically overnight, catapulting global work environments into the throes of unfamiliar territory. For chief ethics and compliance officers, specifically, remote work environments by design require placing greater trust in employees.

In fact, one key point discussed among the panelists was how in times of crisis and great uncertainty, like a global pandemic, ethics and compliance programs face the ultimate stress test. Thus, ethics and compliance officers have a real opportunity to test the effectiveness of their programs, said Michael Blackshear, global chief compliance officer at Ryan Specialty Group. It forces the questions, “Do they work? Should they change? Do they need to evolve?” he said.

Below are some high-level words of advice that were shared throughout the conversation.


Edward Queen

Lead by example. Edward Queen, director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, reminded companies that all decisions have consequences in the wider world. “The choices we make as organizations, and the choices we allow our employees to make, can play a major role in either making the world better or cause new problems,” he said.

Prepare for the new normal. Panelists also spoke about the importance in a post-pandemic world to be imaginative, nimble, and innovative. “Have you encouraged that level of thinking throughout your organization? Are people going to be rewarded for coming up with creative solutions?” asked Queen. That is going to be the difference between organizations that are successful and those that are less successful in a post-pandemic business environment, he said.

Being imaginative requires managing beyond fear of the unknown, so that business leaders, including ethics and compliance officers, can be more agile in their decision making and encouraged to think more creatively. “Who we are today is not going to be who we are tomorrow after we embrace and adapt to the pandemic,” Blackshear said.


Paul Gennaro

Practice transparency and brutal honesty. There are times when you’re going to have to have some very difficult discussions. In those circumstances, being brutally honest and transparent will be important. “The first thing we have to be much more willing to say is, ‘I don’t know,’” Queen said. “In times of uncertainty, being able to acknowledge the uncertainty is key to really gaining trust.”

Check your ego at the door. During the panel discussion, Queen shared the same advice he said he always gives his students: “In order to be able to make good decisions and to do the right thing, the first thing you have to do is get your ego out of the way.” In practical terms, that means being able and willing to acknowledge what it is you don’t know and being able to listen to those who do have appropriate expertise and knowledge so that you can learn from them.

And that brings about another important point …

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Creative thinking should not be kept in a bubble. Paul Gennaro, chief brand and communications officer at Voya Financial, said what the pandemic has brought about is more information-sharing and the need and desire by both peers and competitors in the industry to share best practices in responding to the pandemic. “I’m now on a biweekly call with … about a dozen other large financial services firms,” he said, “and we are all sharing best practices for dealing with COVID.” Those are the sort of network opportunities ethics and compliance officers should take part in as we all work together to adjust in a post-pandemic world.