Nelnet’s Ethical Compass

A company-wide collaboration led by General Counsel Bill Munn has resulted in a vibrant, interactive code of ethics and conduct that’s engaging employees

For Bill Munn, ethics are intuitive. He says some are born with a sharp, internal compass, while others have one that needs calibrating.

“There’s always a gut test for everything,” Munn says. “One of the things we always say is that if you’re not quite sure what the right answer is, but you’re leaning one way or the other, think about what your mom would say if she read about it in the paper. If you’re okay with your mom reading about what you did, then you’re probably okay.”

Needless to say, as the general counsel at Nelnet, ethics are a vital part of his business. The finance and education services company currently has an annual revenue of about $1.2 billion.

“We take very seriously the significant responsibilities we have as stewards of millions of consumers’ financial obligations and their personal information,” Munn says. It’s up to him, then, to make sure Nelnet’s team is aware of the company’s five core values.

“I think the underlying theme is to treat people like you want to be treated,” Munn says about the values, which read as follows: Provide superior customer experiences; create an awesome work environment; pursue opportunities for diversification and growth; communicate openly and honestly; and give back to the communities in which we live and work.

Now, every public company is required to have a code of ethics and conduct, but it’s often nothing more than an e-mail attachment or flimsy handout—a document that doesn’t engage the employee or catch their eye. Elevating the transference and presentation, the Nelnet team realized, was the key to making sure their associates directly engage with those values.

“We looked at what had been set out there as the gold standard for codes of ethics and figured out what was so good about them,” he says. “One of the key approaches we tried to adopt was to make it understandable, real, and practical for associates so they would use it as a resource, as opposed to it just being a document written in legalese they don’t understand.”

It took nearly nine months to produce the final document, which Munn lauds as a “huge collaborative effort” between Nelnet’s senior management and its risk, legal, operations, and communications departments. Accessible online, the document stands out with bright visuals and an eminently readable layout. It also takes great strides to include real-life examples that associates can connect to their day-to-day responsibilities. A number of hyperlinks sprinkled throughout also guide the reader to relevant documents, department landing pages, and contact information.

“As you go through, you’ll see that everything is tied to those five core values,” Munn explains. “Some of them are tied to two or three or four of our core values. We think that helps make it more real.”

It goes further, however, than just ensuring associates know the rules. Munn also wants them to understand the “why.”

“If you’re okay with your mom reading about what you did, then you’re probably okay.”

“Why do we focus so much on these things? Well, if they understand the why, it’s a lot easier to get them engaged in what their piece of that process is. If you’re just saying, ‘Go do this,’ it’s a lot more challenging because they don’t understand why you just switched direction or changed priority on them,” Munn says.

The whole process of reinventing Nelnet’s approach to ethics is emblematic of Munn’s greater philosophy regarding legal’s role within a business. “We are a partner to the business,” Munn says. “That’s always been my focus for the legal team at Nelnet. We are not here to put up barriers. We’re not here to just put out fires. We need to be involved on the front-end of the decision-making and the strategy.”

That’s why Nelnet’s risk and compliance teams regularly engage in the meetings and projects of the business. This includes a compliance management system that applies to “every associate that has some sort of consumer interaction or consumer touch.” This also entails “when and how we call people to how we interact with our military customers to how we handle credit reporting on our consumers.”

There are also initiatives that benefit the organization on a foundational level. Currently, Munn is an integral part of Nelnet’s joint venture with Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation to bid on a contract that the Department of Education is calling “the student loan servicing system of the future.” Legal, Munn says, has worked hand in hand with the rest of the organization since the beginning, serving as both a consultant and decision-maker.

Legal is also leading the organization’s effort to reorganize and refresh its information governance and records management, a job Munn says is “not one of those programs that people line up to lead.” Consider it another example of his department’s efforts to be a vital, integrated part of the business.

By being so present in Nelnet’s day-to-day, Munn’s team is better able to keep the company’s core values fresh in associates’ minds.

“I think one of the things that’s so hard about the ethics of business conduct,” he says, “is helping people develop that internal compass so they can guide themselves to the right action. Some people have it, some people have to learn it. But that’s certainly a goal. We’re there to help people get to that place where they know in their gut what the right answer is.”