Culture Club: As GCs become more responsible for corporate culture, internal membership is essential

Advocates-General are increasingly in a balancing act between the demands of external stakeholders and internal considerations.

They are under pressure to revise workplace policies due to increased consumer awareness of social issues and increased investor efforts for environmental, social and governance initiatives. The attorney general’s goal here is to create a better place to work for employees and to let consumers know that the institutions they use are trustworthy.

But the attorney general can only make sweeping cultural changes with buy-in from across the company, from executives to employees, multiple internal and legal sources have said.

“Internal legal advisers are the decision-makers and their external ambassadors,” said Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, speaking at the Legalweek (year) 2021 opening session in May, adding “it does no doubt that when you think about the role of in-house counsel and the role of the GC and its relationship to cultural change, in-house counsel is an integral part of that change. ”Ultimately, the only currency a business has is trust, ”West said, explaining that much of the cultural work done at Uber has been led by its legal department.

Best practices

Corporate culture can have many meanings, of course. One of the best ways to initiate a culture change is to define what is meant by culture and involve everyone in that definition. “That’s why I wrote to you [definition] I’ve worked with “the way we do things here,” says Erica Salmon Byrne, executive vice president, governance and compliance, at Ethisphere in Denver, an organization that assesses the ethical behavior of companies.

In other words, it’s the set of expectations about how employees are going to do their jobs, Byrne explains. Then, if an employee has questions, where will they go for help? “Not everyone comes to all roles understanding everything that is expected of them,” Byrne says, adding that this situation often involves questions such as, “who are they talking to when they are speaking? have questions and how are they going to make sure those questions are answered? appropriately.

Often times, companies bring in so-called “change agents” and, without giving it much thought, tell employees that the way they were doing their business was bad. This leaves employees who like the way things were done in the past disappointed with new attempts at change. “Don’t worry about what’s wrong with what’s being done. Make sure what’s possible, ”Byrne says.

Erica Salmon Byrne, Executive Vice President of Ethisphere. Courtesy photo

This is what Airbnb did at the start of the #MeToo movement. Robert Chesnut, former legal counsel and chief ethics officer for the company, said that at the start of the #MeToo movement in 2017, Airbnb decided to create a code of corporate ethics. It was not in response to a scandal but to be proactive, Chestnut said.

“It was a recognition that we need to take steps to be more intentional in integrating integrity into our culture,” Chesnut said, adding, “If you wait until there is a problem and there is either in the press, it is over cooked at this point and there is a certain skepticism that accompanies your efforts.

Previously, Airbnb did not have its own code of ethics. Rather than copying common language from the internet or having an outside lawyer create a code of ethics, Chesnut says he’s created a cross-functional team with members of the legal, human resources and marketing department to develop a code of ethics unique to Airbnb. .

He says getting buy-in and input from other executives is key to changing the culture. Legal departments also need to stop viewing integrity and culture as a compliance checklist.

“They [in-house counsel] have to get away from ‘we own this.’ You [the legal department] own compliance. No one should have integrity.

Ultimately, you need to focus less on compliance for compliance when it comes to implementing new rules for the workplace, says Chesnut.

Get membership

After the code of ethics was published and sent to employees, Chesnut says more needs to be done. To ensure that the culture of intentional integrity resonates, Chesnut himself met with new employees to review the code and provide real-life examples.

“We didn’t just send an email saying ‘check the box’,” Chesnut explained.

After completing several orientation programs, Chesnut traveled to Airbnb offices around the world to teach the New Code of Ethics course. Involving employees in the program gave it legitimacy, and having the company’s general counsel give the course in person showed employees that culture is something the company takes seriously, he says.

At Uber, the rideshare company is no stranger to controversy, with a string of scandals in recent years linked to allegations of sexual harassment and its controversial former CEO Travis Kalanick.

West, the company’s general counsel, said employee buy-in was how management started with a culture change.

“Much of it wasn’t top-down. It was from the bottom up. We went through a whole process where we asked the company what our cultural norms and values ​​should be, ”West explains, adding that the ideas of transparency, integrity and accountability came from the employees, which was. essential to get Uber membership. .

“It has helped us to make difficult changes, but also to make lasting changes. It was something we could always come back to when we were doing important things, ”West says. “Being able to come back to these core and agreed-upon values ​​has been helpful. “

ESG in the spotlight

The demand for internal business changes is growing as consumers increasingly seek out companies’ stance on social issues, such as police brutality or access to ballots, and as investors scrutinize corporate culture. company.

Tony West, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and General Secretary of Uber. Courtesy photo

Both groups are looking for more than marketing material. Although there has been a slight downgrade in the importance of ESG during the pandemic, 96% of investors, according to an Edelman report released in November, said they expected their companies to prioritize them more. ESG issues, including corporate governance.

According to the same report, 87% of investors surveyed said they would speak with managers about the work they do to promote an appropriate culture.

At Uber, much of the company’s recent work focusing on ESG social goals has focused on racial equality.

“To be anti-racist is to actively eliminate the practices and prejudices that cause us to prefer one racial group over another,” West explained during the Legalweek (year) session in May. “It forces you to be hyper-aware and question a lot of what we tend to take for granted.”

In support of this and following the death of George Floyd last year, Uber has publicly pledged to be held accountable for racial issues. This included educating bikers and riders on racial justice issues, investing in communities of color, and doubling black leadership by 2025. And new initiatives have spread to the executive ranks. West explained how Uber has linked executive pay to diversity and inclusion metrics in hopes of creating a more diverse company.

As ESG becomes more and more important, it is fair to expect that legal departments will undertake additional work to improve the corporate culture. “ESG is the rock on which all of this work takes place,” Byrne says.

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