Putting employees first
Taking care of your employees should be at the heart of a firm’s compliance culture and initiatives, says Tracey Calvert
Social media is over-filled with many things I really do not need to know. Pictures of other people’s dinners and insights into edited versions of their lives, not to mention the countless different inspirational stories, poems and quotations.
I normally spend nanoseconds whizzing through my social media accounts and, if truth be told, get rather irritated with myself for spending even that amount of my time in that way.
Recently, however, one quotation on my media streams did stop me in my tracks and made me reflect a little. It came from the English businessman Richard Branson, not someone I normally think about often, but his comments on this occasion made so much (obvious) sense, they got me thinking.
You may have heard this before. His quotation is simply: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
Of course, this is right. It occurs to me that this sentiment expresses what should truly be at the heart of the compliance culture and initiatives in our firms.
If we put our own people first and support them in doing the right thing, this has to be a positive contribution to the client experience. Yet we do not often phrase our arguments to promote compliance in this way. Maybe we should.
It is important that we create the right environment for our colleagues. The objective should be to create a workplace in which we make regulatory requirements clear, but encourage and facilitate the ability to meet ethical standards.
It is an environment which is collegiate in nature; where individuals feel supported so that they will be able to behave in a way that has positive consequences for their clients; and an environment in which support is available.
Perhaps the fact that this is not the automatic order should not be a surprise. We take our lead from the Solicitor Regulation Authority (SRA) who does not say this in so many words. Instead, the SRA’s language is consumer-focused; its language and aspirations are designed to maintain the profession’s collective reputation.
For example, we are told that we must treat clients fairly. Many of the behaviours expected of us as solicitors relate to our relationship with clients.
You would be forgiven for thinking that as long as we focus on the client experience, put them first and above all else, then everything else will fall into shape.
It is no wonder, with this type of emphasis placed by the SRA, that it is commonplace for colleagues to misunderstand all the duties by which they will be judged by others – including their regulator.
The owners and compliance professionals in the firm must ensure that all employees are able to work in an environment that is compatible with the regulatory and ethical standards expected of them.
Unfortunately, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) records contain too many depressing stories where employees have done the wrong thing to the detriment of both themselves and their careers and, ironically, for their clients.
Directly or indirectly, there is often a work-related link between their actions and a connection with the culture in which they work. The support systems have failed and they have acted in a way that brings them into the regulatory spotlight.
Ethical behaviour has not been demonstrated. The forces that prevent them from acting properly can come from commercial needs, peer pressure, lack of empathy and lack of effective mentoring supervision – and even from the clients themselves.
Sometimes, it is easy to lose sight of the non-negotiables.
As compliance professionals, we need to provide an antidote to these pressures. We need to ensure that we are able to deliver the right support network.
This lack of connection is something which the SRA has attempted to redress in the standards and regulations.
So, for example, we are told that we must not unfairly discriminate by allowing personal views to affect professional relationships; we must not take unfair advantage of others; and we must maintain our knowledge of regulatory and ethical behaviours and so on.
I would suggest the following mantras should underpin compliance work within the firm:
Authorisation – Staying authorised is essential. A firm which loses its authorised status is unable to continue to offer employment or to provide legal services. This requires everyone to understand why regulation matters and to play their part in maintaining a good relationship with the SRA by behaving in an ethical manner and being personally accountable.
Monitoring – We should constantly be monitoring our actions to ensure that we do not act illegally or unethically.
Avoiding scrutiny – Nothing should be used as an excuse to act in a way that would place the firm’s regulated status or our own behaviours under scrutiny; and that extends to inappropriate instructions from clients. A good firm will support its employees to display the right regulatory and ethical behaviours and to withstand pressures to behave improperly.
Governance and reporting lines should be transparent – There should be clear communication about leadership expectations and a strong network to support this in practice.
Supervisory roles – These are a crucial lynchpin in keeping the firm’s ethos alive.
When mistakes are made – No one will know all the answers all the time. No one will be perfect all the time. Mistakes and errors of judgement will occur, but often it’s next steps which define the moment. It is essential to ask for help and to know that help will be given.
Recognise and challenge inappropriate behaviours – The message that bad behaviour will not be tolerated must be effectively communicated.
The remoteness of lockdown lawyering is not obviously conducive to supporting these values. However, compliance measures must remain appropriate regardless of circumstances.
The compliance function must maintain employee inclusivity, and the values and the culture that are developed in the office space must be able to be transferred (seamlessly or through adaptation) into our new ways of working.
Do employees know who they can talk to? Do they feel isolated or still part of a team with a common brand? It is too early to evaluate the impact of the current order to required behaviours but it is not too early to ensure that employees understand that their needs are being considered and catered for.
I would argue that this is, in fact, a sensible precaution.
Tracey Calvert is a consultant at Oakalls Consultancy Limited