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Ethics and Compliance: Placing These Issues at the Heart of Your Organization

February 27, 2020

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Sergey H

Director, Global Compliance & Risk
Catholic Relief Services

In this blog post, Sergey H. answers key questions surrounding ethics and compliance, asking which is more vital, and how you can place ethics and compliance issues at the heart of your organization’s everyday activities.   


Acting ethically vs being compliant: which is more important?    

While there are, traditionally, distinct differences between ethics and compliance:  

  • Ethics – Internal behavior (doing the right thing)  
  • Compliance – External behavior (doing things right) 

At Catholic Relief Services (CRS), we see ethics and compliance both as external and internal (both doing the right thing and doing the things right).  

To achieve our mission, we accept resources from donors (including governments) under the terms and conditions that we agreed to comply with in advance. It is, therefore, unethical to not live up to these expectations or not  to disclose any compliance limitations. At CRS, integrity and honesty are the foundations of ethics and are the drivers of robust compliance.  

When building our compliance program(s), we ensure that ethical aspects of compliance are well articulated and are part of the organizational communication/messaging and culture. In the the past, there have been instances in which we found ourselves in  conflict with compliance requirements (activities) that did not align with our mission, principles, values, and/or ethical norms. In such instances, we either found immediate temporary solutions and/or disclosed our organization’s limitations and inability to perform the requested activities due to the existing values-based conflict.  

Ultimately, it is more important to act ethically than to be compliant, and it is unethical not  to disclose limitations and make informed choices.  

Embedding ethics and compliance into your organization’s everyday activities 

How can you successfully ensure that your organization is striving to embed ethics and compliance into the heart of its everyday activities?  

Here are three tips for how your organization can better embed ethics and compliance in their everyday activities:  

1)  Infuse ethics and compliance topics into agency behavioral competencies, guiding principles or both.

2) Mainstreaming: naturally integrating the placing of the requirements and standards into relevant activities.

3) Organizational training and learning opportunities: this could be achieved by immersing these topics into required training provided to staff at all levels, starting at onboarding, by providing refresher training throughout staff tenure, and by supplementing required training with optional related learning opportunities. 

At CRS, ethics and compliance are embedded in our Agency Behavioral Competencies and Guiding principles –  

Agency Behavioral Competencies include integrity; building relationships; continuous improvement and innovation; accountability and stewardship; developing talent; and strategic mindset. 

Guiding Principles include social nature of humanity; sacredness and dignity of the human person; rights and responsibilities; stewardship; the common good; subsidiarity; option for the poor; and solidarity.

To further emphasize these, at onboarding, staff are required to complete online learning modules that cover CRS’ Behavioral Competencies and Guiding Principles, which discuss ethics as a central component of CRS’ mission, programming, and work around the world.   

Highlighting ethics and compliance issues to board members  

Board engagement effectiveness can be increased by highlighting clear problem statements, proposing recommendations, and enforcing accountability through monitoring and reporting. To reach executives and the board at CRS, we use methods of effective escalation (bottom-up) and semi-independent mechanisms (ERM Council, Compliance Council, Inter-divisional Working Groups, and other advisory bodies). These methods and mechanisms reach those higher up in the organization by using briefings, recommendations, and reports. 

By using these techniques and approaches, you can embed and mainstream ethics and compliance issues into the everyday activities of your organization, ensuring that ethics and compliance issues remain at the heart of your organization.  

Thank you, and stay tuned for the next blog! As always: “Protect. Perform. Improve.”, and let me know in the comments below or anywhere on social media what you think and what you would like to see more, or less, of.  


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The content of this post may have originally appeared on December 4, 2018, in the E&C Pulse Newsletter.