Values, culture and effective compliance communications – the role of behavioral ethics

Compliance-related communications constitute a large part of the day-to-day work of many compliance-and-ethics departments.  But is this work being done in the most effective manner reasonably possible?

“Modeling the Message: Communicating Compliance through Organizational Values and Culture,” – published last fall by attorney  Scott Killingsworth in The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics  – provides a thoughtful examination of what we can learn about compliance  communications from various findings of behavioral science.  The article critiques the traditional approach to compliance communications – which focuses on avoidance of personal risks  – as being premised on a  “rational actor” theory that in recent years has been seriously undermined by the results of behavioral economics/ethics research. In this regard, Killingsworth argues: “Instead of conveying the message that compliance is non-negotiable, [the personal risk versus reward approach] implies that it may be negotiable if the price is right.”  An additional source of concern is that this way of communicating may send the implicit message “that management does not trust employees. Potential side effects of this message range from resentment, to an ‘us-versus-them’ attitude towards management, to a reverse-Pygmalion effect in which employees may tend to ‘live down’ to the low expectations that are projected upon them.”

As an alternative, Killingsworth draws upon the behaviorist concept of “framing” to suggest that communications framed in terms of values and ethics are more likely to be effective in reducing wrongdoing than are traditional compliance communications. In that connection, he describes a study showing “that over eighty percent of compliance choices [in the workplace] were motivated by internal perceptions of the legitimacy of the employer’s authority and by a sense of right and wrong, while less than twenty percent were driven by fear of punishment or expectation of reward.” A second benefit to the values-based approach is that it can better serve as “a source of internal guidance in novel situations” than does the traditional alternative.   Third, communications framed from the former perspective may enhance companies’ efforts to promote internal reporting of violations (obviously an important consideration in the Dodd-Frank era),  a contention that he bases on a study which showed that “the reporting of compliance violations encountered dramatically different effects depending on whether the subjects considered a particular infraction morally repugnant or not.”

As well as discussing communications per se, Killingsworth’s piece examines “the messages implicit in key company behaviors, which can either reinforce, undermine, or obliterate explicit compliance messages.”   So, while explicit communications are important, C&E officers must also “reach across functional boundaries to executive management and the human resources group and, if necessary, educate them about the principles of employee engagement and the value of consistent explicit and behavioral messaging that activates the employees’ values and brings out their [employees’] better natures.” The piece concludes with a list of other practical recommendations – concerning, among other things, culture assessments and communications strategies – for making all these good things happen.

Finally, I should emphasize that this posting only scratches the surface of what is in “Modeling the Message: Communicating Compliance through Organizational Values and Culture,” and I strongly encourage both C&E professionals seeking to up their respective companies’ communications efforts and behavioral scientists seeking to learn more about how their work can be put to practical use in compliance programs to read the piece in full.

3 Comments
  1. Jason Lunday 5 years ago

    Jeff:
    Your many posts here on behavioral ethics and Killingsworth’s article have really set the standard on this important issue and provided a real service to our profession. Thanks for continuing to advance the issue.

    • Jkaplan 5 years ago

      Jason, I very much appreciate your kind words about the blog. Best, Jeff

  2. Egbert Schram 5 years ago

    It´s great to see that more attention is being paid to the topic of organizational culture from a different segment (non anthropological, psychological or sociological).

    From our perspective of auditing organizational culture, the biggest bottleneck however is still the “threat” of management being exposed as inadequate. As Top management sets the standard; if they don´t walk the talk and the systems and processes don´t support a culture of compliance, perhaps only the threat of legal consequences (on a personal level) might make executives to take this so-called “soft” concept very seriously.

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