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Mike Scher: Dear President Trump, Compliance officers are still underdogs

How will President Trump and the new administration view compliance officers and their work? Are compliance officers friend or foe?

It’s no secret the election has changed almost everything. A big shake out is coming to America. Once again, the times they are a’ changing, as the Bob Dylan song goes.

So let’s have a dialog with the new administration: What are Americans’ core values and what are core values of the compliance profession? Do they work together? How are we going to protect our legacy of American core values and keep them working for us and for our children? Does America need good compliance officers?

First, fighting corruption through the FCPA is a unique contribution of America to global economic growth and to the common fight of decent communities against criminal networks.

Graft isn’t real business at all. It’s “monkey business.” It’s stealing and cheating from real business. Decent people around the world building family businesses refuse to pay bribes. They support and like the FCPA; they say, “I’m trying to make a living and I want a legal life.”

When compliance officers summarize compliance in twenty-five words or less, it’s about how to “prevent, detect and repair the damage” from corruption and misconduct.

We all want responsible companies and organizations to win, and we want everyone to play by the rules. That’s what makes the whole system function: free and fair markets, stability under law and common decency, But we all must work together. And that’s the first rule of compliance.

Writing about VW and Wells Fargo, I said that compliance officers stop the house from burning down — and taking the whole neighborhood with it. Reflecting on the tragedy of world war in my parent’s generation during a compliance conference in Vienna at the Wittgenstein Villa, I posted: “Yes the world has changed. We are assembled here and we are making plans. Speaking out. Seeking the common global good by fighting corruption. Trying to draw the world together, not divide it.”

Second, let’s hope that restructured, dynamic compliance is seen for the achievement it is — and isn’t lumped into a stereotype of business-ending, burdensome government regulation. Compliance officers aren’t “deal-killers” from the Department of No, the Anti-Sales Cops. That’s a myth.

And it’s wrong to see compliance officers and their compliance programs pushed to the curb by old compliance myths. It’s not fair to compliance officers and the work they do. And it’s really bad for business, judging from decades of scandals when organizations don’t think they need compliance officers to implement lessons-learned management tools from past wrongdoing.

It’s worth repeating at this historic juncture: Compliance is pro business. Restructured compliance, or, Compliance 2.0, is the norm for good management. It exists off the shelf now. It’s rolling ahead, adopted by the DOJ’s Hui Chen, the trillion-dollar healthcare industry, and icons of global commerce.

Compliance officers are new executives with special expertise to help management run productive organizations. They’re also the eyes and ears of the board. Board oversight needs an urgent upgrade. Well-run compliance programs are part of the checks and balances inside companies that protect profits, brand-name reputation, and all stakeholders ( employees, customers, the public, and so on). Board oversight is still the critical weak link. Compliance officers are a major upgrade when they report to the board. Compliance officers can make board governance, especially for vastly complicated global operations, a reality.

Third, compliance officers also have a mission that has ethical and moral parts, derived from upholding board-created core values and from personal conscience. The contributions of responsible businesses and organizations to a decent, free and growing world are as critical now as they were in past troubled times.

From the Cold War to the civil rights struggle, from Orlando and to wherever the future is taking us, responsible business is a powerful force for stability and core values. Most compliance officers want a sense of mission in their work — or they wouldn’t be in a profession where doing your job can still get you fired, not promoted.

Compliance officers choose to work at responsible companies — and vote with their feet by leaving irresponsible companies. They stand up for their values.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. It’s been decades in the making. But compliance is still growing, a dynamic work-in-progress with a mission.

Though compliance officers have come far, they are still the underdogs. Every day the compliance profession fights uphill for recognition and the tools to do the job.

Which leads me to my last reason to ask President Trump and the new administration to look carefully at compliance officers and their mission.

Compliance officers and compliance programs are not perfect, but what is? Compliance officers are trying to grow the compliance profession. They’re using rights and freedom to model and build a speak-up culture that’s very American. Moreover, this advocacy by compliance officers is itself important for America’s core values.

If history is a guide, citizens and compliance officers alike must persistently use their freedom to discuss and their right to advocate, or those freedoms and rights might be lost. In the pushing and shoving ahead, let’s build on the good things.


Michael Scher is a Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog. He has over three decades of experience as a senior compliance officer and attorney for international transactions.

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