It's a matter of trust

Written by Paul J Gennaro on 1 May 2013 in Features
Features

Ethics and integrity are more important than ever, says Paul J Gennaro

There is a significant amount of factual and anecdotal data suggesting that the global business community is at, or near, a 'perfect storm' - a storm fuelled by a growing crisis of trust.

We have seen consecutive years of alarming global data in the Edelman Trust Barometer1, during 2012 and 2013. Data from the 2013 Trust Barometer2 was announced in January and showed that, after unprecedented declines in 2012, global public trust in business (58 per cent), government (48 per cent), media (57 per cent) and non-governmental organisations (63 per cent) has settled at less-than-encouraging levels.

Similarly, a Gallup Confidence in Institutions poll conducted during June 2012 showed that approximately just one in five respondents has a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in big business3. While it's true that, over the 40 years of Gallup's survey, big business has never performed well, the trend has continued downward over the years and, since 2006, remains entrenched near or below 20 per cent.

And while an individual business can work to earn a high level of public trust for itself, it only takes one bad apple among the business community to taint all others - especially those who occupy the same industry as the perpetrator. The times when we only worried about the reputation of our respective organisation certainly seem to have passed. The reality that we all live and work in is that an interdependent role exists between the actions of a given organisation and the public perception of all organisations. If a given organisation loses public trust due to actions that are perceived as unethical, there is some level of negative impact on all organisations.

This negative impact - or loss of trust - hurts everyone. That's why it's not enough for each firm to only care about its own reputations; we are all connected, if not directly by the affairs of business then certainly by the attitudes of the public.

As a result, besides our responsibilities to our respective stakeholders, all of us in the business community have an additional responsibility to each other in the ongoing effort to build and maintain public trust. And, as we see from the Edelman Trust Barometer and Gallup poll trends, the need to go beyond the minimum in building trust is becoming more acute.

As background, AECOM is a company that truly makes the world a better place. Our 45,000 employees around the globe include architects, engineers, designers, planners, scientists and management and construction services professionals who serve clients in more than 140 countries - advancing some of the most challenging projects on the planet, as the company creates, enhances and sustains the world's built, natural and social environments.

I'd like to share some examples of ways that our team at AECOM is going beyond the minimum to make ethics and compliance a centrepiece in our trust-building efforts.

Treat ethics and integrity as part of a holistic organisational value system

There is a tendency to treat ethics and compliance programmes as the police officer who's keeping an eye on the neighbourhood. This creates the impression that these programmes are designed to monitor for, and punish, errant behaviour when, instead, they are meant to educate about, and encourage, the right behaviours.

Ethics and integrity should be an organic by-product of the organisational culture and the values that underpin corporate reputation and the brand. AECOM's purpose statement - to create, enhance and sustain the world's built, social and natural environments - is more than the way we pursue business; it informs our commitment to conduct ourselves as a sound corporate citizen.

Just as our philanthropic programmes and pro bono volunteer services for organisations such as Engineers Without Borders, Water For People and Habitat for Humanity affirm our commitment to communities in need, our ethics and compliance programme affirms our commitment to earn the trust of our stakeholders.

Institute strong governance, enabled through visible leadership

As with many public companies, ethics and compliance governance resides at the highest level of AECOM as part of the charter of the nominating, governance and risk committee of the company' s board of directors. In addition, AECOM has a separate internal ethics and compliance steering committee, consisting of senior leaders across our global operations to review the status of the programme and any matters that require attention.

Complementing our formal ethics and compliance governance, our global advisory board, chaired by former British prime minister Sir John Major, provides deeply knowledgeable counsel and guidance to help us more fully understand and anticipate the economic, political and social impacts of our business strategy as well as potential challenges that could affect our stakeholder relationships and overall reputation. The insights we gain from its members measurably improve our global and cultural awareness and overall moral perspective.

While an ethics and compliance governance framework establishes the intent to operate with integrity, it is visible and engaged leadership that demonstrates the organisational commitment to do so.

All of AECOM's geographic leaders directly communicate their support for the company's ethics and compliance programme, utilising messaging that accounts for cultural and language differences. These communications reinforce the views on integrity of our chairman and CEO, John M Dionisio, which are regularly delivered through videos, face-to-face engagements and emails to our employees around the world.

We also look for opportunities to underscore our commitment to integrity with external audiences. To that end, our CEO was pleased to participate in a panel sponsored by the Ethisphere Institute, which annually recognises the world's most ethical companies, at the New York Stock Exchange to discuss the traits of ethical leaders.

Another good example of an external effort to demonstrate our commitment to ethics and integrity is the best practices in ethics communications workshop that we hosted last year in New York, in partnership with the Ethisphere Institute and General Electric.

The workshop, which was geared towards communications executives, featured several recognised leaders in the corporate communications profession and attracted 95 participants from companies such as Aflac, American Express, Boeing, Cigna, Edelman, Eli Lilly and Company, Fluor, Fox News, General Electric, The Hartford, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, PRWeek magazine and TD Bank -along with the Emory University Center for Ethics and the US Navy.

Ethics as a key driver of corporate reputation was the main focus of the interactive workshop. Internal communication strategies to create an ethical business culture that engage staff were highlighted during it, as were external communication programmes emphasising ethics as an attribute that differentiates your brand from that of your competitors.

Work across the C-suite to foster an ethical culture

AECOM's corporate communications team partners closely with our ethics and compliance team in creating and executing a comprehensive and dynamic global communications programme.

Professionally - and personally - I have a terrific relationship with our chief ethics and compliance officer, Susan Frank. While the person leading corporate communications and the person leading ethics and compliance may seem like an odd couple to become best buddies, the partnership has emerged quite naturally.

When your CEO establishes the 'tone at the top' with an emphasis on ethics and integrity in everything that we do, the goals of the corporate communications and ethics and compliance teams become shared and interdependent. Susan values communications, and I greatly appreciate her expertise in ethics and compliance.

Together, our teams - along with colleagues in HR, IT, across our corporate group and throughout our global operations - work to develop and execute an internal communication strategy that fosters an ethical business culture, engages our staff and is fun. We also partner on external communication programmes that emphasise ethics as a differentiating brand attribute, which is increasingly important in the global business marketplace.

When I speak with colleagues in the corporate communications profession about priorities and goals, I encourage them to seek out their peers in ethics and compliance. Because even if their CEO has not clearly articulated that ethics is a top priority, it surely is.

My respectful request to readers of this article is that - regardless of your area of expertise - you consider opportunities to work across the C-suite to advance ethics and compliance within your organisation's culture.

Elevate the organisational consciousness to act with integrity

One of the great challenges for large, global organisations is how to foster and maintain a consistent ethical culture across operations and around the world. The obstacles are daunting, yet the need is essential.

Increasingly complex business environments - churning with difficult economies, evolving customer/client demands, new/complex regulations and seemingly never-ending pursuits for improvement of business processes - provide a landscape ripe with potentially disruptive change for most companies. The business environment is further exacerbated by a battle for employee 'share of mind' that has never been more competitive. Untenable amounts of email, along with myriad other technological information inputs, are compounded by uncountable in-person, phone and video meetings. And while communicating with staff has never been harder to do, it will likely only become more challenging as we go forward.

For those charged with ensuring that organisational values, including ethics and integrity, serve to define a culture, tone at the top is essential. As I mentioned earlier, we are fortunate to have a CEO who emphasises the importance of integrity - as a non-negotiable core value of our company - every time he meets with employees. Beyond words, he demonstrates this commitment with his actions.

Building on this, we leverage our code of conduct, training, policies and assurance through audit and accountability. We have implemented many of the standard actions to boost ethics and compliance knowledge, including the requirement that all employees read and certify their understanding and conformance with AECOM's code of conduct (available in 12 languages); the availability of an ethics hotline through which employees can anonymously report suspected unethical behaviour; and access to online training vignettes and relevant news and information through our dedicated internal ethics and compliance portal. Like tone at the top, these are 'must haves'.

Working with our colleagues in ethics and compliance, along with our global communications team, we complement these foundational pillars with a robust internal communications programme throughout the year - with the emphasis on the 'throughout the year' part.

We have taken significant steps to elevate integrity as the most important of AECOM's core values. Our ethics and compliance internal communications programme includes frequent messages from the CEO, along with cascaded insights from our geography and business line chief executives; articles authored by senior leaders; internal and external events that we sponsor; a robust intranet site; posters to generate and maintain awareness; corporate- and employee-created videos (with the latter having an authentic feel that offsets any difference in production value with the former); internal social media; an annual Ethics Week programme that includes unique events and activities across the global enterprise; external thought leader insights shared via podcasts; and a sense of humour - because you can make ethics fun.

By taking these additional measures, we give our employees more opportunities to examine, and constructively engage with, leadership and colleagues about ethics-related matters.

Leverage talent and diversity to drive the message

We have the good fortune to employ a tremendously creative and talented global communications team across our geographies and business lines. I see my role as setting the vision and goals, with input from several key colleagues. Then, we execute communications tactics at the corporate level that are complemented by communications activities and programmes at the operational level.

Whether it's a global brand launch or Ethics Week, we have seen that we're most effective at communicating when we look to our 'local' communications leaders to determine what will work best for their staff. And 'local', in this instance, can mean by geography or by business line, as organisations can have many sub-cultures with characteristics that are uniquely specific to a country, profession etc.

By doing this, we embrace the diversity of our organisation and communicate in a manner that is consistent, as well as relevant, at an individual level.

Trust is earned every day

Ultimately, AECOM's reputation for ethics and integrity is a proxy of the trust we have earned as an organisation. Like any corporate asset, trust accumulates or diminishes based on how we manage it.

Since trust is the capital that underpins reputation, we will continue spending a good amount of time trying to ensure that the net asset value of trust is growing in line with the ambitions of the enterprise. The good news is that we have the ability to increase trust every day, across all of our stakeholder engagements, and we remain committed to that effort.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Paul J Gennaro is senior vice president and chief communications officer at global professional technical and management support services provider AECOM. He can be contacted via www.aecom.com

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