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The In-house Counsel's Guide to Being a Culture Champion

Business ethics Column
I ncreasingly, in-house legal and compliance professionals are expected to proactively contribute to their organizations' success, not just by mitigating risks but also by supporting the creation of a healthy workplace culture. A positive environment leads to stronger employee engagement, greater employee retention rates, improved productivity, and better overall morale. But with increasing demands and resource constraints, how can you find the time to focus on culture? Here are five actions you can take to become a culture champion at your organization.

Send the invitations

Even as the legal and compliance profession continues to evolve, many organizations still fail to include those professionals in the early planning stages of key culture-impacting initiatives. It takes effort to ensure that business leaders include in-house professionals in critical decisions. Here's how you can launch the conversation about culture if your company hasn't taken a proactive, definitive stance.

  • Use simple, effective branding and a template for all messaging to create familiarity, and remind business leaders of your team's value;
  • Provide business leaders with relevant statistics that reflect the company's culture, such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims, litigation, engagement survey data, and training completion; and,
  • Attend a regularly-scheduled business meeting and cover a relevant topic, such as harassment prevention, data privacy, or protecting company information. Follow up with a written summary and your contact information.

Pull up a chair

Once you've been invited to have a seat at the table when key business decisions are made, it's critical to make sure you can influence decisions that could impact culture. Your ability to speak up and demonstrate the value of your presence is vital to successfully contributing to culture initiatives.

Start by knowing the business and its strategy. Research the current plan and speak with colleagues to understand historical factors that may be guiding decisions. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, deliver. Be prepared to offer your insight, specifically on how certain decisions may influence the company's work environment.

For example, if your organization is considering an acquisition, confirm that training, focus groups, and legal audits are on the post-acquisition plan with you or your team as owners or contributors.

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Eat a balanced meal

Advocating for clear guidance — not just to meet regulatory requirements, but to ensure employees are aware of expected behavior — is also critical to creating a positive workplace culture. As an in-house legal or compliance professional, your voice carries weight, but it should also be balanced with authentic, candid conversations and a second helping of listening. Try these suggestions for a balanced approach:

  • Verify that the right policies, investigation procedures, trainings, and audits are in place to address important culture-impacting topics, such as bullying, harassment, conflicts of interest, government relations, and pay equity;
  • Insist that prompt and consistent action be taken against employees who break the rules, including senior leaders; and,
  • Make certain that discussions around inclusion and diversity are included in key conversations, especially those related to your company's products, marketing, advertising, hiring, and succession planning.

Stay for dessert

Nothing speaks to business leaders like verifiable data that demonstrates results. Advocating and sponsoring initiatives is certainly one way to impact culture, but legal and compliance professionals should also invest time in analyzing data and using that information to tell a story.

For instance, if the law department recently completed a law firm convergence project that included a focus on diversity and resulted in reduced fees or better service, share that information with company leaders and employees. Illustrate the importance of having strong company values and proactive policies against bullying, harassment, and retaliation by periodically sharing easily digestible case summaries and statistical data.

"Staying for dessert" also means avoiding the urge to dart from one meeting to another. Instead, schedule meetings on the quarter-hour and use the extra fifteen minutes to stay behind and learn what's happening at the company from a grassroots perspective.

Toast to success(ion)

A final, critical component of becoming a culture champion is to establish a solid employee development and succession plan within your department. As the compliance profession continues to grow, the battle for top talent will only intensify.

Attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent and serving as a role model for those who may be interested in advancing in the legal and compliance profession not only helps enhance culture, but also sends a clear message to others about your company's values. Remember to:

  • Prepare managers to respond to employee concerns. According to a recent survey by the Ethisphere Institute, 68 percent of employees report ethical concerns to their immediate managers — not the company ethics helpline.
  • Share insights on culture during legal and compliance discussions. On average, companies deemed to embrace a culture of ethics performed 4.88 percent better than other companies on the US Large Cap Index over the 2015-2017 calendar years.
  • Work with human resources and procurement to create a solid roadmap to develop and reward employees who embrace company culture and recognize third-party vendors who share your company's values.

Legal and compliance professionals are in a unique position to influence company culture. Backed by the strength of legal and regulatory requirements, legal and compliance professionals are often seen as the voice of reason in challenging situations. Taking a proactive approach not only ensures the personal satisfaction of contributing to a positive work environment, but guarantees that you can assume your role as a champion of culture.

About the Author

Kellye-GordonKellye Gordon is the vice president ethics and compliance at VF Corporation.


The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.