The #MeToo movement underscores how ethics and compliance traning is evolving.

When allegations of sexual misconduct brought by dozens of women surfaced against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, it incited an entire movement. Since that time, more and more women have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against many other high-profile individuals in both the private and public sector—from politicians to media personalities to senior-level corporate executives.

Media attention and activism surrounding the #MeToo movement has helped fuel the fire that has sparked change in ethics and compliance training today. “It is forcing us and our leaders, and those who support and fund our programs, to really rethink the way that we’re addressing risk in this current environment, and that’s because the risk has changed,” Ingrid Fredeen, vice president of training and content at NAVEX Global, said during a webcast on compliance training in the #MeToo era.

The pivotal difference is what Fredeen describes as a “massive shift in power.” Nowhere has that shift to transparency and corporate accontability to employees been more evident than with the #MeToo movement. Eighteen months ago, if a company were to investigate allegations of sexual harassment, it could maintain control over the narrative. The employer and the employee would typically reach some sort of private resolution.

From an ethics and compliance standpoint, such secrecy didn’t do the company any favors. Typically, many employees were kept in the dark about harassment taking place within the company—for example, the prevalence of the behavior, whether the same individuals were repeatedly committing harassment, and the issues being reported.

“With social media and the #MeToo movement, that power dynamic has shifted, and compliance professionals and executives no longer have exclusive control over messaging,” Fredeen said. “A single tweet, a single blog post, a story, or a video can garner intense public support, as well as media coverage.” 

Now, all it takes is just one individual to take down an executive from even the largest companies in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few months ago. Because of what so many people are hearing and seeing on social media, this has many on their toes. “Take advantage of that,” Fredeen said. “Use it as an opportunity to help improve training within your organization.”

The increasing importance that chief ethics and compliance officers are placing on sexual harassment training was captured in the findings of NAVEX Global’s 2018 Ethics & Compliance Training Benchmark Report, which drew from the insights of 1,264 ethics and compliance, legal, audit, and HR executives from companies of all sizes, 801 respondents of whom are training-program decision-makers and influencers.

In that report, creating a culture of integrity, ethics, and respect was cited as the top ethics and compliance program objective, by 68 percent of respondents, whereas 62 percent cited “implementing preventative measures and practices to avoid future issues or misconduct” as the second top objective.

“Navigating and complying with laws and regulations across jurisdictions” was cited by 47 percent of respondents as the third-most important program objective. The NAVEX Global report, however, noted that “those who pursue ethics and compliance programs simply to check a box or comply with regulations are missing an opportunity to take advantage of program capabilities that develop, nurture and maintain strong, positive organizational cultures.”

‘Ethical culture’ defined

The NAVEX Global survey found that respondents define a culture of ethics and respect in a variety of ways. For example, 49 percent defined it as “a culture that encourages ‘speaking up,’ asking questions, and raising concerns,” whereas 48 percent defined it as one in which the executive team and managers lead by example.

Ranking third, 38 percent of respondents defined an ethical culture as one that equally enforces rules, regardless of employee-level or performance. Whereas some companies may have been prone to tolerate harassment in the past, we are starting to see changes in the way more companies publicly address allegations brought against those in their upper ranks.

Uber, for example, announced in June that it ousted more than 20 employees following an investigation into harassment claims. In another example, Nike, in May, announced the departures of five additional executives—bringing to 11 the total number of executives who have left the company, to date, as Nike continues to clean up a toxic corporate culture that for years went ignored, The New York Times reported.

Prudent ethics and compliance officers at companies that have top-level executives facing allegations for misconduct should consider surveying the culture beyond those leaders. You may find nothing, or you may find weaknesses in culture that require attention and repair, Fredeen said.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents defined a culture of ethics and respect as “an environment free of toxic behaviors.” The response highlights that an ethical culture isn’t just about legal compliance, but about fostering a culture free of bullying, intimidation, favoritism, lying, dishonesty, and undermining employees, Fredeen said. “More are recognizing that such behavior is disruptive to our business and culture, and we need to focus on that,” she said.

What is troubling, however, is that just 12 percent of respondents defined an ethical culture as one where retaliation is not tolerated. “This is the one I think is a major miss,” Fredeen said.

“Retaliation is what is driving individuals to express their concerns on social media,” she said.  Employees often air their grievances publicly because they weren’t listened to or they were mistreated for coming forward, and they felt like their employer didn’t care.

Training methods

According to the NAVEX Global report, the two most effective methods of pursuing a culture of ethics and respect is “executive buy-in and leading by example,” cited by 56 percent of respondents, and “training, coaching, and awareness efforts,” cited by 55 percent of respondents. Overall, the findings highlight a growing awareness by ethics and compliance officers about the need to improve executive-level training and a recognition that traditional preventative training efforts haven’t been effective enough.

The foundation of any ethical culture is not just words, but actions. Executives and middle managers must live by the values they preach, and that’s where ethics and compliance officers play valuable role. “You have to teach them how to be receptive to complaints, how to be receptive to questions, how to work with employees who express a concern,” Fredeen said. For companies seeking guidance in this area, NAVEX Global has created a free, three-part series of anti-sexual harassment awareness and training videos.

Get them to understand what ‘lead by example’ means. Fredeen also recommends putting managers in tough, hypothetical situations: How would you communicate to an employee who reports allegations of harassment? What would you say to them? What would your body language look like?

If you are in that camp of companies thinking, ‘I need to do better,’ the two areas to start with are basic harassment awareness training and building trust in reporting mechanisms. “Those are really important foundations,” Fredeen said.

Other basic measures to build an ethical culture include complaint handling, improving leadership support. “That’s how you’re going to build that main program,” she said.

“Don’t let ‘culture’ be a buzzword,” Fredeen said. Sit down with your team to define what a culture of ethics and respect looks like, and then rethink and revise your ethics and compliance program and training to cultivate those values. The #MeToo era is here to stay. “This is the new norm,” she said, “and the sooner everyone jumps on board, the better off your training programs will be.”