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Aecon Group Inc.

Transforming compliance with code of conduct
Aecon Group Inc.

By Jennifer Brown

Category: Compliance
Department size: Small
Company: Aecon Group Inc.

In recent years, the construction industry has seen itself implicated in a flurry of corruption allegations domestically and internationally, but some companies, such as Aecon Group Inc., have kept a clean track record for more than 100 years. Last year,  the legal department decided to leverage its success and raise awareness with Aecon employees about the importance of ethical business conduct.

To reinforce that track record and to get ahead of reinforcing the importance of ethical behaviour, in 2017, Yonni Fushman, executive vice president and chief legal officer in charge of Aecon’s in-house legal department, proposed, developed and implemented a mandatory, interactive online code of conduct training module, rolling it out to the organization, and delivered a 99.5-per-cent successful completion rate (about 3,000 people) in the first year of implementation.

With a view to the importance of compliance being visibly led by the top of the organization, Fushman also ensured that all members of the board of directors completed the training.

“Before this project we had a code of conduct available online but it was quite passive, and my sense was we weren’t doing as much as we could to make sure there is awareness and that we were really pushing compliance,” says Fushman.

Also, as Fushman points out, while most companies “get religion” about compliance and ethics, it’s usually only after a serious ethical breach. He saw the company’s longstanding, untarnished tradition of ethical behaviour as a source of pride that the company should not only share with its employees but also be wary of taking for granted that it would simply continue happening of its own accord.

“We needed to be a little more deliberate about the communication to make sure we were actively fostering that culture of compliance and ethical conduct,” he says.

With the board’s approval, Fushman enlisted the help of Aecon’s in-house training department to leverage a new SAP-integrated learning management system to develop an interactive online training module that highlighted areas particularly relevant to Aecon’s business, and eventually engaged graphic designers and voice actors to build the finished product.

Fushman then held a meeting with the entire executive team to go through the training and persuade them of the importance of their support. Within four weeks, 99.5 per cent of the organization had successfully completed the module (the balance were in remote areas with no internet access so training is being provided as they return to the office).

The system enables tracking of completion and continues to prompt the employee and their supervisor that the module is incomplete until the employee answers 100 per cent of the test questions correctly. (Aecon did not believe that an 80-per-cent ethical was an acceptable standard.)

In the past, Aecon had relied on in-person training, but given staff turnover, the remoteness of some offices and limited resources, the recommendation for an online solution leveraging technology was the only option to ensure we were able to reach 100 per cent of the workforce.

The ease of scalability and relative simplicity of revising the module also allows Aecon Legal to continually update the training to address current trends and issues facing the industry and Canadians in general.

One of the important additions this year was a new section proactively addressing the #MeToo movement by clearly communicating Aecon’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment and encouraging women to report concerning conduct without fear of reprisal.

“This is something rolled out from the CEO and it’s a message from the CEO, board and executive team that it’s something we’re quite focused on,” says Fushman. “In terms of tone from the top and commitment, I think it really gets that message across.”

The new Aecon code of conduct module is also less exhaustive and more principle-based.

“If you looked at our code of conduct or anyone else’s from 10 years ago, you would have seen see a 30-page document that is quite legalistic going into great detail, but the evolution since then has really been to make it more plain language, higher level, more conceptual and principled. So on the one hand we’re not getting as granular as to what is or isn’t allowed, but on the other hand it’s easier to understand. On balance I think it’s important for the average employee to be able to pick it up and see in plain English what it means to us that you behave ethically in business and otherwise,” Fushman says.

The training program is part of a larger array of compliance initiatives including an auditable log of code of conduct violations to facilitate discussion around gaps that need to be closed, an international project compliance program and annual training about ethical bidding practices and conflicts of interest.