In early November, for the seventh consecutive year, NS participated in Corporate Compliance and Ethics Week. NS’ theme, “Let Your Voice Be Heard,” played off the national campaign theme of “We’re Listening,” encouraged employees to report concerns, and highlighted NS’ Thoroughbred Code of Ethics.
“Our continued participation in this event demonstrates our ongoing commitment to upholding our SPIRIT values,” said Wayne Lockwood, director ethics compliance. “We’re always available to employees, and this campaign serves as a reminder that we’re a valuable resource.”
While call volumes fluctuate, NS’ ethics and compliance office during the last calendar year experienced a significant increase in reported concerns and requests for policy advice. The number rose to 309 in 2014, a 50 percent increase over 206 in 2013. In the first eight months of 2015, the office fielded 203 concerns and requests for guidance.
Pennino noted that the current uptick has occurred since the company in 2012 began introducing behavior-based leadership processes into the workplace to encourage open communication and build trust.
“People might feel more comfortable reporting because of that, but I don’t know,” he said. “It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why calls rise or why they fall.”
The most commonly reported internal concerns, Pennino said, involve things such as suspected theft of company property, alleged misuse of company purchase cards, and possible violations of the company’s computer compliance guidelines. Calls seeking advice often deal with questions about accepting gifts from vendors or customers and the use of corporate credit cards.
In a typical year, 30 percent of reports of suspected ethics or compliance violations at NS are substantiated through the company’s internal investigation process, according to records kept by the department. That rate is similar to other companies in the transportation, communication, and utility sectors, said Mae Brown, NS compliance specialist.
“We encourage people to report something if they have questions about it,” Brown said. “If it turns out to be nothing, it’s nothing. People should know we’re approachable. We’re not out to get anyone.”
Employees might hesitate to report concerns for three main reasons, Pennino said. They fear retaliation; they doubt that their concerns will be investigated; or they don’t believe they can remain anonymous. Not one is true, he said.
First, NS policy and federal law prohibit any type of retaliation, including firing or demotion, against an employee who reports, in good faith, what is believed to be violation of a law, a company policy, or the code of ethics. Second, every concern reported is catalogued and investigated by trained NS compliance investigators or the appropriate department. Third, the NS ethics and compliance hotline does not have caller ID, the online form does not record email addresses, and there is no requirement that an employee provide his or her name during any stage of an investigation.
Ethics and Compliance Hotline:
“We’re a resource, but it’s sometimes hard to change people’s negative perceptions,” Pennino said.
Pennino and his team of investigators are certified as fraud examiners and compliance and ethics professionals and have attended school on interview and interrogation techniques. The three investigators on his team include a former NS police officer, a certified public accountant, and an expert on data analysis.
One thing employees should know, he added, is that his office’s responsibility is limited to investigating concerns and determining if there is evidence to support the concerns. His investigators work up reports of their findings and deliver them to senior managers and officers in human resources or labor relations, who work together to decide how to proceed.
“We’re the fact finders,” Pennino said. “We present the facts, and that’s it.” For Pennino, the bottom line is this: Employees facing a situation they’re unsure of ethically should not hesitate to contact ethics and compliance.
“Just call,” he said, “and put the burden on us.”