This article has been co-authored by Sundar Narayanan, Director – Forensic Services at Nexdigm (SKP), Orlando Vidal, Partner – White Collar crime at Norton Rose, Dubai, and Lolan Sagoe-Moses, Associate – While collar crime at Norton Rose, Dubai.

The COVID-19 epidemic has created a "new normal" in the way that businesses are run. Leaders now have to balance managing the effects of varying degrees of lockdowns on their physical offices and factories, engaging with teams digitally, and adapting their operations to the new remote-working model.

While affected businesses understand the broad implications of remote-working, the 'new normal' has also created several compliance risks. A company and its stakeholders could either not be aware of these or could be neglecting them due to a current focus on operational efficiency, if not survivability.

To ensure that a company keeps ethics and compliance issues at the fore of its thinking in this period, ethics and compliance officers should consider the following tips for engaging with the company's key stakeholders:

1. Board and Audit Committee

  1. Have a proactive conversation with the Board and the Audit Committee about challenges in the current environment.
  2. Consolidate and present a summary of the status of investigations and categorize these for proposed action with a staged approach to case closure, based on their criticality, and the possibility of gathering evidence.
  3. Highlight legal and regulatory risks associated with incumbent delays or limitations and express the plan of action you are pursuing to address the risks.

2. Senior Management

  1. Work with the senior management to identify the support they must give to employees while they work from home (WFH), to safeguard their personal health and safety and thrive amidst lockdowns.
  2. Use this opportunity to engage with senior management personnel to re-enforce essential measures on ethics and compliance.
  3. Discuss potential challenges in the current scenario, and use their influence to drive important messages on cybersecurity and ethics-awareness while working from home for employees.

3. Whistleblowers

  1. Communicate with whistleblowers on anticipated delays in case handling.
  2. Reassure them that the organization is taking their concern(s) seriously and is working towards closure as soon as possible.

4. Employees and Contractors

  1. Revisit the code of conduct or ethics policies and make essential revisions where relevant, in the context of the WFH arrangement.
  2. Review risk assessments to consider emerging risks, like cybersecurity.
  3. Review your organization's contractual rights to collect or monitor key employee communications that are sent in the current time, taking into consideration data-privacy restrictions in sensitive jurisdictions like the EU.
  4. Regularly remind employees how to access the ethics portal or whistleblowing channel to enable effective reporting.
  5. Review the training calendar and reschedule online training for employees who may not have attended certain function-specific ethics training sessions in recent cycles.
  6. Develop recorded or 'on-demand' training content for employees to go through at a convenient time.
  7. Consider revised investigative protocols and approaches in conducting remote investigations.

5. Internal Ethics and Compliance Team

  1. Deliberate on challenges surrounding investigation case-handling and ethics communications.
  2. Work with the team to rephrase the investigation protocols and approaches in remote investigations.
  3. Review cases with the lead investigator to conclude on alternative approaches that can be used to attain progress or closure on open cases.

6. Government Authorities

  1. Check if the relevant regulatory or investigative authorities have provided any extensions on deadlines to report issues, or other forms of relief to companies as a response to COVID-19. Use this data to propose a strategy to approach the regulator regarding any delays in ongoing government investigations.
  2. Review your approach towards preparing your staff or clients for any interviews that will continue as scheduled. It will be important to plan and manage your IT and logistics carefully to ensure that you can guide your client through the interview, while simultaneously engaging with the regulator.

7. Other Third-Parties

  1. Connect with ethics and compliance executives of critical customers/suppliers to exchange notes on key challenges in enforcing ethics in the current circumstances, and collectively agree on critical actions.
  2. Inform suppliers, vendors, and other third-parties of online training options on ethics and compliance, and encourage them to use them.

Ethics and compliance officers have a critical role in upholding the compliance culture of an organization. The current actions that ethics and compliance officers take may help organizations emerge stronger in the long run. Such actions will also help businesses align with the current, dynamic environment, and help key stakeholders understand and appreciate the support of ethics and compliance officers.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.