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Richard Bistrong: Are your sales teams compliance ambassadors?

I recently heard a CEO at a compliance event ask, “Are people ready to sacrifice sales for compliance and ethics if that moment arises?” Great question.

Roughly, there are two compliance approaches to this dilemma. I’ve seen them both in different companies.

The first approach is when sales teams are trained to comply with specific laws and regulations. In the medical and pharmaceutical industries, for example, there are a host of U.S. laws that govern kickbacks and reporting (the FCPA is just one of those laws), so the training is technical and specific to the team’s function and role.

The trainees are the recipients of compliance. They are given appropriate training and they have opportunities to ask questions and hear the answers.

At the conclusion, they certify they attended the training, and they’re expected to follow the rules.

Under the second approach, by contrast, the employees aren’t the recipients of compliance, they are compliance. While still firmly planted in the law, this alternative view of compliance sees front-line personnel as “ambassadors” of compliance, or as I heard at one event, “compliance deputies.”

Compliance leaders now understand that they can’t be everywhere. So under the “compliance ambassadors” model, they empower their sales and business development teams to identify compliance gaps and vulnerabilities, and to bring those issues back to HQ, with suggestions on how to fix them.

The sales teams under this model will typically implement the  supplemental controls they themselves have helped to create, as to mitigate potential exposure. The flow of compliance is very much a two-way street between compliance leaders at HQ and the sales teams in the field.

As I heard one CCO remark, “Who better to help identify risk in the field than those who work on the front-lines, where risks are constantly changing.”

The compliance ambassadors model recognizes an important truth: That policies, rules and procedures can look very different in the field and under the enormous pressures to succeed. Said another way, the ethical challenges of the real world can overwhelm any amount of compliance training. But when there is open and honest communication, that dynamic doesn’t have to doom compliance, it can actually be an asset to making it stick. How?

Smart companies now have a deeper view of compliance than mere training geared to compulsory legal and regulatory requirements, followed by warnings to follow the rules. I know when I am in the midst of one of those smart companies. At their social functions, for example, you see compliance personnel and sales teams mingling and laughing. It’s not “us and them.” Instead, those from HQ in charge of compliance and those from the field have formal and informal  relationships built on trust. It’s that two-way street I mentioned. When you’re around it, it’s absolutely contagious.

In those companies, when the compliance ambassadors (i.e., the sales force) find themselves struggling with an ethical choice, they know the message from the compliance leaders at HQ is: “You’re not alone. Call us, and let’s figure it out together.”


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics for 2015. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He can be contacted here and and on twitter @richardbistrong.

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  1. I guess compliance programs are just about to realize their power on reinventing antithetical relationships by putting some transparency and integrity in it. Actually, this is Compliance, its a culture change, not only IN the company, but by disseminating its values ​​throughout society, contributing, in the final analysis, to build an ethically sustainable environment.

  2. It's sort of deceptively complex.

  3. I obviously prefer the second approach. But for a compliance department it takes a lot of effort to get there. You need to spend time with your local sales force abroad, discuss their challenges, acknowledge that there may not always be an easy or painless solution available but demonstrate your added value by helping them navigate through the issues and create an environment of trust. If you are successful you may even receive more questions than you can handle. But that's better than not receiving any questions at all.

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