C is for Compliance
OK, this is kind of a touchy point with ethics practitioners. So I am going to vent a little. You’ll see why in a sentence or two and then you can weigh in with what you think about it. I was talking to a relatively senior business executive about what I do. He said, “Oh, yeah, you’re the compliance guy.” I took a deep breath and started to explain. “No actually, you are. Because a failure of compliance could mean someone will go to prison and the regulators and prosecutors will come looking for the most senior person responsible for the conduct of the business. So, in a practical sense, you are the designated defendant.” I have a little experience with that! Deep in the last century, I started my career out of law school as a white collar, criminal defense attorney. Now, I tell people I am a recovering lawyer. Now back to that business executive. Here’s what I told him.
- Compliance is all about rules and regulations. It’s hard stuff because it is often said that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you didn’t know the law, you should have known it.
- Those rules and regulations govern everything that happens in your business from the hiring of workers, to their retention and training, to the cleanliness and safety of the facilities you operate. It’s the licensing requirements to open the doors for business and keep them open. The export/import controls on your products. The taxes you pay.
- It’s about technical specifications in contracts to build highly sophisticated products for difficult-to-please customers.
- I explained that it’s really hard to keep track of all the requirements in the town or city where you do business. The minute you expand to the neighboring town the laws and regulations change.
- Now try moving to a neighboring county, state or province where everything you thought you knew is different.
- If you are really successful, try expanding overseas. If you are really brave, consider the UK Bribery Act. It created a new crime of failing to prevent bribery.
- Why do you think serious companies have strong legal departments? And armies of highly qualified lawyers/gladiators waiting for your next misstep. This stuff is hard!
- Should I go on?
Well, his eyes were starting to show signs of fear. So I continued. You see, I told him, I am not the compliance officer. That’s your job and you hadn’t even thought of it that way. You thought your job was to make money and deliver results to corporate headquarters. He was shallow breathing at this point but he managed to ask “Then what do you do?” I smiled and said “While I am not the compliance guy, I am the ethics guy…at least that’s what folks call me when I show up soon after their latest on-line training course.” And since you asked, “I can keep you out of trouble or I can get you out of trouble! What’s your preference? The cost of compliance is high. The cost of non-compliance is astronomical. And then there’s that prison thing! In Ethics, we’re all about values and virtues. We help set the tone and reinforce the important commitment to doing things honestly, with integrity and with respect for others. And yes, one of those things is serving as a steady reminder that our company has opted to do things the right way. When we choose ethics, compliance follows.” As some of you who know me have heard me say, Ethics is a team sport! We are all in this together! Now it’s your turn. Ethics? Compliance? Are they really that different or just two sides of the same coin? Where will you draw the line?