Almost universally, organizations have initiatives and associated taglines to encourage employees, clients, customers, or other actors to report concerns. “See Something/Say Something,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Make it Right,” and “Listen Up/Speak Up” are just a few clever ways companies encourage the reporting of something illegal, unethical, or contrary to their mission and values. But regardless of how catchy the line is, employees struggle with a consistent dilemma: “Am I speaking up, or am I being a snitch?”
“Wait, what? Did you just call me a snitch?”
This line is an excerpt from one of our recent ethics blogs. In 2018, Allianz Life started a blog about ethics and ethical dilemmas, written by our CECO and available to all employees. It had to be engaging, entertaining, thought provoking, and most importantly, it had to elevate the conversation about ethics.
Every company that is serious about ethics and compliance struggles to come up with the latest and greatest vehicle to generate a conversation around ethical behavior and “doing the right thing.” Often, we look to elaborate initiatives and expensive solutions, when instead we should first consider low-cost, personal ways to enhance our communication.
At Allianz Life, we found ourselves facing a dilemma shared by many of our peers: what tools could we use to foster a conversation with our employees about ethics and building an ethical culture? We wanted to explore new methods and modalities rather than employ traditional articles that repeated textbook definitions of ethics. Our communication needed to be conversational and tackle topics that capture our employees’ attention and make them want to engage in a conversation about ethics.
The idea of a blog came from our CEO, who already writes his own blog that is the most-read item on our internal company website. His posts are personal, relevant, and to the point on company-related happenings, as well as his thoughts on items in the news and their relationship to our business. Most importantly, he personally writes each post, so the ideas, words, and phrases clearly come from the same man who speaks at all-employee meetings. They come across as a genuine conversation and an insight into his thinking. His suggestion and support were critical to launching a successful ethics blog.
Getting off the ground
To launch our blog, we conducted research and read similar blogs from a wide range of industries. Many were focused on technical legal and compliance issues. Others tended to only focus on issues found in one particular industry. What jumped out at us were those articles that tied current events to company perspectives and employee behaviors, regardless of industry. This benchmarking helped us to formulate our approach.
Reading these blogs and our CEO’s submissions, we determined the tone we wanted to set and established some guidelines:
- We didn’t want to use the blog to substitute for training modules or as a teaching vehicle
- We didn’t want our posts to be preachy
- We didn’t want to regurgitate information that was already available on our website
- We wanted to write on subjects that were topical to both our work and personal lives
- We wanted to challenge our readers to think about a subject or a dilemma in a new way or from a new perspective
- We wanted to start a conversation about ethics, ethical decision-making, and our ethical culture at Allianz Life
Setting up and administering an endeavor like a blog usually requires buy-in from key stakeholders. However, we were amazed how quickly the operational aspects came together with our CEO’s strong support and endorsement. He wrote an introductory article that helped springboard the blog.
Ironing out the Details
Working with our Corporate Communications department, we found the right frequency (a little more than one post per month, for a total of 17 the first year), gained a coveted spot on the corporate main page for multiple days, established a process to archive previous blogs, and released monthly metrics reports on the number of readers and the length of time they stayed on the blog.
We kept the posts to 500–600 words so that we could hold the ever-shrinking attention spans of our readers. We also clearly defined our drafting and review process, as we wanted the tone across the blogs to be consistent, and we didn’t want to have so many reviewers that the posts were completely sanitized.
We put together a rough schedule of topics to help guide our messages towards a specific end goal but agreed that the topics could be changed if needed as current events and trends emerged. We wanted to be intentional, but we didn’t want to be so stuck to a schedule that we missed opportunities to talk about timely issues. Over our first year, our topics ranged from a discussion of how performance reviews were not an Olympic event to the ethics of Phil Mickelson’s intentional penalty at the US Open. We also included a handful of interviews with senior leaders in which they discussed how they handled ethical dilemmas that arose in their careers. We ended each of these blogs with a question asking the reader how they would have reacted if placed in a similar situation. These questions prompted both reflection and a response we could incorporate into future blogs.
We closely tracked our readership metrics and reported those results up through our leadership. After a year of posting, we are one of the most-read items on our internal website (following our CEO’s blog), and we’ve learned a few key lessons:
- An eye-catching title is critical to getting people to open and read the blog.
- A conversational tone is key to relating to your audience. The tone cannot be preachy!
- Our readers enjoy the fact that we close each blog with a practical question to encourage comments and opinions.
- Topics that are relevant to the everyday lives of our employees keep them coming back. The Phil Mickelson blog, which was not on our original plan but was a hot topic in the sports world, had our second-highest readership of the year.
Writing about ethics and ethical culture isn’t as hard as it might seem. One post tended to bring up other topics we could write about. Events in the news could be used as future subjects or spur an idea, and of course our readers often suggested issues to explore. When putting together the outline for 2019, we had an abundance of topics from which to choose to fill up our schedule.
A Success with Available Resources
The ethics blog has been an all-around win for our program. We have raised the visibility of the Ethics Program and the Ethics Office, we’ve introduced examples of ethical decision-making and problem-solving that are relatable for our employees, and most importantly, we’re hearing more employees talk about ethics and ethical decision-making. It’s a testament to the blog’s success that we are stopped in the cafeteria or hallways with comments about a blog post or questions about the next installment.
Like any new initiative, launching the blog and gaining reader attention hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Some of the biggest challenges have been clearly capturing the nuances of the topics, the logistics of hitting our posting deadlines, and getting drafts through the right reviewers. As much as we love our blog as a vehicle of communication, we don’t advocate that a company scrap strategic communication plans in place of blog posts or cancel comprehensive training modules in favor of a 500-word biweekly posting. Instead, our experience is that an effective and cost-conscious way of promoting your ethical culture can be as simple as using an available resource (our internal website), relevant topics, eye-catching titles, and a focus on holding a conversation with employees rather than lecturing at employees.
About the Author:
Steve Koslow is the Chief Compliance Officer for Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America. Prior to joining Allianz Life, Koslow was the Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer with CUNA Mutual Group in Madison, Wisconsin. Building compliance experience, he also held director roles with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Madison and Chicago, where he helped lead the strategy and execution of compliance projects for national life and health insurance companies. Prior to that, he held various attorney roles with MetLife and the law firms of Schiff Hardin & Waite and Holland & Hart.