As a leading provider of disability, critical illness, accident, and life insurance, Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Unum has a keen sense of how many people look to it to do the right thing. And for Beth Simon, Unum’s Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer, doing the right thing is as much a matter of a good internal compass as it is institutional muscle memory developed over time. Interview by Bill Coffin.

Can you talk about some of the specific ethics and compliance challenges specific to your industry and how your company’s program addresses them?

One of our primary responsibilities is keeping our customers’ information protected. Our compliance and ethics program has really focused on that in a few ways.

We set very clear expectations in our code of conduct on how to treat sensitive information. It is every employee’s responsibility to do whatever they can to keep that information safe.

We also have a very robust training program for our employees and contractors. We have 10,000 global employees and we track everyone’s training obligation. We have a very close partnership with our privacy and information security team, and recently increased our compliance oversight over issues related to IT security and data privacy to make sure the compliance team has a line of sight into those areas. We also report any privacy or information security related issues to our board of directors on a quarterly basis.

Beth Simon, Unum’s Chief Compliance and Ethics Office

Beth Simon, Chief Compliance and Ethics Office, Unum

Our leadership team helps set the expectation that everyone is responsible for compliance. Our CEO, Rick McKenney, is our biggest champion. During compliance training season, he encourages everyone to complete the mandatory training. He sets the tone for executive leadership.

Insurance companies rely on 3rd party distribution networks to get their products out to their clients. A lot of companies have third party risk to deal with, but it’s especially large for any insurance company because of the way their distribution networks are structured. Do you do anything special with your distribution partners to make sure they understand your code and expectations?

We have to be really careful in this space because we don’t want to cross the line and create a co-employment situation. We do provide them with training where it’s legally required and set clear expectations in their contracts.

Could you speak to some of the program’s recent achievements that you are especially proud of or that reflect area of strategic importance for Unum?

Being named an Ethisphere World’s Most Ethical Companies® honoree is a big achievement. Our employees are proud of this designation because it highlights the visibility of our compliance and ethics program within, and outside of, the company.

Last year we spent a lot of time on continuous improvement. We refreshed our code of conduct. We benchmarked all of our compliance policies against best practices. We enhanced our communication plan and strategy to make sure we are getting ethical messaging in front of people on a regular basis, in particular our managers, who we know are probably the most influential stakeholders in the employee experience.

We have worked hard to demonstrate to our business partners just how important it is to keep compliance and ethics top of mind. This is important because we look to be included at the table on new initiatives. I think we’ve been able to demonstrate our value and have seen a shift at our company in ethics and compliance being part of everybody’s responsibility in their day-to-day work.

How does Unum’s ethics and compliance program reflect the company’ broader mission, vision, and values?

It’s embedded in everything that we do. Our company’s purpose is to help the working world thrive throughout life’s moments. Many times, we are helping people when they’re most vulnerable.

We want to make sure we’re living up to our commitment to our customers. From a compliance perspective, we try to be consistent, treat people fairly, and be professional in all of our communications.

Our employees, customers and regulators are stakeholders. Our company talks a lot about operating with integrity. We also take the responsibility we have to our customers very seriously. This includes going beyond what is legally required and instead asking, “what’s the right thing to do?” It’s a part of who Unum is.

Strong ethics is good business. Where would you say Unum’s ethics and compliance program has contributed most directly to improving the company’s overall performance?

Our customers, stakeholders, and employees expect more from the companies they engage with and what we’re seeing is that compliance and ethics are top of mind for them.

We get questions from our customers asking us very specifically about Unum’s compliance and ethics program. They want to see our code. They want to know we are very intentional about training employees on ethics.

One of the ways we create value is when companies are making their decisions around employee benefits, they want to do business with a company that has a really strong reputation as a World’s Most Ethical Companies® honoree versus a company that might not have those strong values.

We’ve also done a lot of work to attract candidates and retain employees in this tight labor market. People research the companies they are interested in. Potential employees see our environmental, social and governance initiatives.  No one wants to work for a company that has a bad reputation.

What are your thoughts on how a company’s behavior positions it for the larger role it plays in society?

I love this question. I could talk about it all day.

Your house must be in order before you can make a difference elsewhere.  Unum has done a fantastic job allowing us to be a good corporate and world citizen.

Unum makes positive contributions in the communities we serve. We are located in smaller markets so our outreach and giving to the communities that we live in is such an important pillar of our company. It’s who we are, and the company makes numerous opportunities available, including volunteering, giving to a social justice fund, and matching charitable contributions. It is amazing how the company really encourages employees to exemplify a caring spirit. The stronger the community is, the better it is for everybody.

We started a campaign to raise money to provide food and hygiene products to local food banks and community kitchens.  Hundreds of employees – including our executives – packed thousands of snack bags and hygiene kits for community members in need. Our company really takes that seriously.

Over the last two years, everybody has been carrying a lot of extra mental and emotional weight, and it’s taken a toll on wellness. Do you think having a great ethics and compliance program, to the extent it helps to build a better corporate culture, and maybe shows how the company is serving a greater good, take some of that weight off of employees’ shoulders?

That’s the way I feel about it, so I hope so.

We talk about things being right or wrong, like it’s black and white, and it’s not always so easy. I think having a strong, ethical culture serves as a compass to help people navigate those gray areas.