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Compelling employee experiences during instances such as onboarding have emerged as critical opportunities for reinforcing ethical organizational cultures, giving risk and compliance (R&C) professionals powerful tools to drive behaviors that ultimately improve business outcomes, according to a panel of human resources, legal and compliance experts.

At a time when marketplace and regulatory expectations of organizational ethics are intensifying, R&C professionals can use those levers to foster greater retention, improve brand reputation among consumers, lower litigation and regulatory costs, and achieve other benefits, experts said. Yet those opportunities don’t come as the product of a check-the-box exercise – senior executives and management must also lead by example, requiring alignment with R&C from the top of the C-suite to workers on the front line.

“It’s not just ‘training,’” said Frank Vasquez, director of corporate and social responsibility for Hanesbrands, Inc. “It’s more like a journey.”

Speaking as part of the 2023 NAVEX Next Virtual Conference, Vasquez joined NAVEX’s Cindy Raz, chief people officer, and Shon Ramey, general counsel, to share the latest thinking around building compelling employee experiences to increase compliance adoption.

Among the central themes of the wide-ranging discussion was the value of an all-encompassing employee experience that relentlessly reinforces the organization’s expectations of ethical conduct. This included the more direct touch points such as onboarding and periodic training, but more broadly, an alignment across the entire organization where all employees and leaders evoke ethical standards on a continual basis.

Vasquez, Raz and Ramey focused on the interconnected areas of how R&C professionals can execute effective onboarding and training, as well as how to foster an ethical culture throughout the organization.

Best practices for onboarding success

So, what are some best practices for onboarding? Our panel outlined the following to establish the baseline:

  • Convenient access to quality, relevant training
  • Easily referenced code of conduct and policies
  • Scheduled time with direct manager and peers
  • Resources readily available to equip employees on how to do their job
  • Consistent messaging across all teams and leaders

Ramey also noted the legal argument supporting strong and consistent onboarding practices. “At a very minimum, by having a consistent experience of onboarding and continuing that process, you’re going to reduce the risk of noncompliance with whatever legal requirements your company has to maintain,” he said.

Yet, he said the justification was not simply a matter of managing legal risk – effective onboarding and consistent training improves the ability to compete for talent by setting a company’s positive reputation with employees, customers, investors and others.

“Onboarding is truly an ongoing nurturing process – earning the right to retain that individual you ultimately just hired,” Raz added.

She noted that the employee experience actually starts well before onboarding – a brand’s social media presence, for example.

“With that said, the onboarding experience is important to anchor people,” she said.

Vasquez, from Hanesbrands, said onboarding and training is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. It’s true that the effort should guide participants toward the same goal in terms of expectations for ethics and culture, but different roles will require different paths to get there.

“Don’t confuse consistency with one-size-fits-all. You need to have different processes of onboarding, but it’s the messaging that needs to be consistent,” he said.

Board members, for example, require a certain approach in their own onboarding that resonates in a different way than for individual contributor employees. Similarly, different regional cultures present in the workforce of globally operating organizations may require different nuances.

“You’re trying to implement a corporate culture into many different cultures around the world,” he said.

On top of it all, COVID-19, and the remote-work dynamics that accelerated as a result, introduced a whole new challenge, Vasquez said.

“Now, with remote work, that’s another element, where sometimes you have to assign a specific onboarding process” to comply with local regulations for even just a single employee, he said.

Raz also emphasized the importance of easily accessible policies such as an organization’s code of conduct in supporting an effective onboarding and training experience.

How to ensure ethics and compliance is rooted in your culture

A culture of ethics and compliance doesn’t happen overnight or without intentional efforts. Our panel also offered the following best practices to ensure ethics and compliance is rooted in culture:

  • The messaging must stay consistent at all levels of the company
  • Unethical behavior must be addressed appropriately (and consistently)
  • Ask for, and be open to, employee feedback in the form of employee sentiment surveys
  • Encourage reports and inquiries to the hotline to create a speak-up culture
  • Investigation and follow up on reports – close the loop on reports
  • Ensure all management is comfortable with receiving reports and next steps – they need to be equipped to handle these conversations

When it comes to reinforcing an ethical organizational culture, senior leadership and others need to embody those values, Vasquez said. Otherwise, those expectations will not be taken seriously.

“Most of all, you need to walk the talk,” he said.

Ramey, the NAVEX general counsel, noted survey findings from NAVEX’s 2023 State of Risk & Compliance Report showing that R&C practitioners don’t always believe managers commit to compliance in the face of competing priorities. He noted that this is a troubling perception, and echoed Vasquez’s emphasis on the importance that management evokes ethical values.

“That consistency really matters,” he said.

On the other side of the equation, Ramey also shared findings from a George Washington University study showing organizations that do have ethical cultures in which reporters feel they can “speak up” about misconduct see better business outcomes. The factors include areas like legal and regulatory expenses, stock price, reputation, recruitment and retention, and customer loyalty.

“You want onboarding to help build culture, not just focus squarely on whistleblowing. It’s important to do that, yes, but it’s most important to be building culture – that’s the core,” Vasquez said.

Leading insights from the NAVEX Next Virtual Conference

This NAVEX Next session, “Increasing Compliance Adoption Through Unique Employee Experience” and others are available to stream on demand from NAVEX. Click the link below to register and gain access to hours of content from top thought leaders.

Access NAVEX Next On-Demand