Q&A: What is a Chief Ethics Officer?

March 13, 2017 | GET MORE : Ethics

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U.S. Bank, named a by the Ethisphere Institute as a 2017 World's Most Ethical Company, recently created a new role: Chief Ethics Officer.

On March 13, U.S. Bank was recognized by the Ethisphere Institute as a 2017 World's Most Ethical Company, the third consecutive year the bank has earned the recognition.

The designation is based on a framework developed by the Ethisphere Institute that offers a quantitative way to assess a company's performance in an objective, consistent and standardized way based on its ethics and compliance program, corporate citizenship and responsibility, culture of ethics, governance and leadership, and innovation and reputation.

U.S. Bank, the largest U.S.-based bank ever to make Ethisphere's list, created a new job earlier this year to advance and preserve the bank's ethical culture: Chief Ethics Officer. 

So, what does a Chief Ethics Officer actually do? U.S. Bank veteran Katie Lawler sat down to talk about her new role.

For background, how did you get started at U.S. Bank?

I was raised in Houston and Chicago, and my parents relocated to Minnesota when I was in law school at the University of Houston. The thing you need to know about my mom is that she's really good at keeping her kids nearby. I moved up to Minnesota – without owning a coat – for an opportunity with a law firm in 1995, and my two brothers followed shortly thereafter thanks to Mom finding jobs in newspaper classifieds. I spent five years or so with the firm before going in-house with U.S. Bank. I was interested in moving in-house having done some assignments with my law firm's clients and seen what life was like on the inside. U.S. Bank had a great reputation and I was excited about the opportunity to be a part of the business.

You held a variety of positions in legal and human resources that generally centered on culture and employee engagement. How did that pave the way for your current role?

After a few years as a lawyer supporting human resources, I had the opportunity to join our human resources division as the HR director for our branches in large metro areas, and then progressed to leading employee relations nationally. When I moved into the latter role in 2008, I inherited responsibility for our corporate ethics program, including managing our Code of Ethics which at the time basically amounted to 46 single-space pages of "thou shalt nots." We revamped it in 2012 into a more aspirational document that lent itself to much more engaging and user-friendly training. We also focused on communicating our values to our employees more frequently rather than relying on a once-a-year campaign. 

Why did the bank create the standalone Chief Ethics Officer role?

Bank culture has been getting more attention in the past couple of years, in the public eye and by regulators. About a year ago, I was part of a cross-business group that analyzed some aspects of our culture. We confirmed that we have one that supports and meets our customers' needs. However, as part of our review, we recommended formalizing ethics as a standalone discipline – a full-time job. Unbeknownst to me, I was creating a job for myself. We outlined our reasoning for the role to [CEO Richard Davis] and he said, "Katie, I think this job was designed for you."

Where do you see the role going in the years ahead?

We're shaping an organization that goes beyond regulatory compliance. Success is inspiring employees to live our core values (such as "We do the right thing") and instill a sense of pride in our culture. We're telling employees that we're here and that this is a safe place to speak up. We're teaching our leaders how to handle a situation and reward courage should one of their employees come to them with a concern. I also see us using data analytics to connect the dots between the resources available to us – employee feedback surveys, turnover data, exit interview, audit results and more – to help our executive team, in particular, feel better-informed about our organization. I see this role as a connection point across the organization to help bring people together to lead and sustain our ethical culture. Ethics can't just be "Katie’s job." Every one of our leaders is a Chief Ethics Officer. 

What does the Ethisphere recognition mean to you?

I've been here for 15 years and I've worked with all parts of the organization. I remember sitting down with my team a few years ago and saying, "If any bank should be recognized by Ethisphere, it's U.S. Bank." Our leaders atop this company have the highest levels of integrity. I look back on all we've done over the years that has put us in the strong financial shape we’re in today. We didn’t take inappropriate risk or focus on short-term gain in the lead-up to the financial crisis, for example. This company has long focused every single day on doing the right thing. That's why I was willing to take on this role.

Pat Swanson is a member of U.S. Bank's public affairs and communications team.