What is the value of having a Code of Conduct? I have heard many business folks ask that question over the years. In its early days, a Code of Conduct tended to be lawyer-written and lawyer-driven to wave in regulator’s face during an enforcement action by using it to claim we are an ethical company. Is such a legalistic code effective? Is a Code of Conduct more than simply, your company’s law? What should be the goal in the creation of your company’s Code of Conduct?
In the 2012 FCPA Guidance, the DOJ and Securities and Exchange Commission stated, “A company’s code of conduct is often the foundation upon which an effective compliance program is built. As DOJ has repeatedly noted the most effective codes are clear, concise, and accessible to all employees and to those conducting business on the company’s behalf.” Indeed, it would be difficult to effectively implement a compliance program if it was not available in the local language so that employees in foreign subsidiaries can access and understand it. When assessing a compliance program, DOJ and SEC will review whether the company has taken steps to make certain that the code of conduct remains current and effective and whether a company has periodically reviewed and updated its code.”
In the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) 2017 Complete Compliance and Ethics Manual, article, entitled “Essential Elements of an Effective Ethics and Compliance Program”, authors Debbie Troklus, Greg Warner and Emma Wollschlager Schwartz, state that your company’s Code of Conduct “First and foremost, the standards of conduct demonstrate the organization’s overarching ethical attitude and its “system-wide” emphasis on compliance and ethics with all applicable laws and regulations.” They go on to state, “The code is meant for all employees and all representatives of the organization, not just those most actively involved in known compliance and ethics issues. This includes management, vendors, suppliers, and independent contractors, which are frequently overlooked groups.” From the board of directors to volunteers, the authors believe that “everyone must receive, read, understand, and agree to abide by the standards of the Code of Conduct.”
There are several purposes which should be communicated in your Code of Conduct. The overriding goal is for all employees to follow what is required of them under the Code of Conduct. You can do this by communicating those requirements, to providing a process for proper decision-making and then requiring that all persons subject to the Code of Conduct put these standards into everyday business practice. Such actions are some of your best evidence that your company “upholds and supports proper compliance conduct.”
The substance of your Code of Conduct should be tailored to your company’s culture, and to its industry and corporate identity. It should provide a mechanism by which employees who are trying to do the right thing in the compliance and business ethics arena can do so. The Code of Conduct can be used as a basis for employee review and evaluation. It should certainly be invoked if there is a violation. Your company’s disciplinary procedures be stated in the Code of Conduct. These would include all forms of disciplines, up to and including dismissal, for serious violations of the Code of Conduct. Further, your company’s Code of Conduct should emphasize it will comply with all applicable laws and regulations, wherever it does business. The Code needs to be written in plain English and translated into other languages as necessary so that all applicable persons can understand it.
As I often say, the three most important things about your compliance program are ‘Document, Document and Document’. The same is true in communicating your company’s Code of Conduct. You need to do more than simply put it on your website and tell folks it is there, available and that they should read it. You need to document that all employees, or anyone else that your Code of Conduct is applicable to, has received, read, and understands it. The DOJ expects each company to begin its compliance program with a very public announced, very robust Code of Conduct. If your company does not have one, you need to implement one forthwith. If your company has not reviewed or assessed your Code of Conduct for five years, I would suggest that you do in short order as much has changed in the compliance world.
How important is the Code of Conduct? Consider the 2016 SEC enforcement action involving United Airlines, which turned on violation of the company’s Code of Conduct. The breach of the Code of Conduct was determined to be a FCPA internal controls violation. It involved a clear quid pro quo benefit paid out by United Airlines to David Samson, the former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public government entity which has authority over, among other things, United Airlines operations at the company’s huge east coast hub at Newark, NJ.
The actions of United’s former Chief Executive Officer, Jeff Smisek, in personally approving the benefit granted to favor Samson violated the company’s internal controls around gifts to government officials by failing to not only follow the United Code of Conduct but also violating it. The $2.4 million civil penalty levied on United was in addition to the Non-Prosecution Agreement settlement with the Department of Justice, which resulted in a penalty of $2.25 million. The scandal also cost the resignation of Smisek and two high-level executives from United.
Three Key Takeaways
- Every formulation of a best practices compliance program starts with a written Code of Conduct.
- The substance of your Code of Conduct should be tailored to the company’s culture, and to its industry and corporate identity.
- Document Document Documents your training and communication efforts.
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