Skip to content


Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong: When business leaders become compliance leaders

I’ve noticed a positive shift in corporate compliance events, especially during some of my overseas engagements. Compliance initiatives and ethical messages are coming directly from business leaders in addition to compliance executives.

It’s more than wall-posters and intranet messages. The new business messaging I’ve observed is very much hands on. It’s about integrating compliance into routine work and goals, as opposed to the corporate voice of “compliance from afar.”

And this outreach is even reaching the far-flung field offices of the organization, as business executives focus particularly on middle level managers,  who are the one’s most often interfacing with the field. That’s the pressure point where the volume of compliance can go down, as the needs to meet commercial objectives get served first. In other words, it’s where stated values can separate from operational values.

What are business leaders saying? Here are three recommendations about operationalizing compliance that I hear the most:

Prepare and sensitize people for risk before they are in the middle of it.

New hires are a part of global business, and people often get transferred within the workforce. The business leaders now get it, and that’s a big change.

I spent the first half of my career focusing on the U.S. law enforcement and military marketplaces, some of the highest integrity and lowest risk markets in the world. The second half found me spending extended time in frontier overseas markets, where lucrative business opportunities and corruption risk were inherently intertwined.

While I signed FCPA paperwork before my first flight in my new role as the VP of International Sales, I was ill-equipped and informed about the risks I would face, until I was in the middle of them. That’s not an excuse, breaking the law was a choice, but it remains inspiring to see business leaders now taking the initiative to get their forward based teams ready for the inevitable. 

Make sure the commercial workforce understands how the compliance department is organized to support the field.

Corruption is a complex problem and compliance support functions need to be properly calibrated to confront corruption risks. It’s been great to see business and compliance leaders share the podium to walk their teams through compliance resources, and explain together how those functions deal with risks connected to foreign bribery, commercial bribery and conflicts of interest, to name a few.

Many organizations have a matrix of support roles. How those support roles really work might seem obvious to those at headquarters but it can be confusing for those working remotely. Simply knowing who to call and the expectations of how long it will take to get resolution of an issue or dilemma go a long way to reducing the chances that someone in the field will make a dubious compliance decision on the fly. 

Everyone needs to know what to do if there’s a problem.

For sales personnel in the field, sometimes saying “no” to a corrupt request from a customer or intermediary isn’t easy and could expose the individual to harm. If a corrupt offer is presented in a situation that could turn hostile, what is the plan for engagement and perhaps even extraction? What needs to be documented and how quickly? What are the messages around “no.”

Commercial leaders are learning to plan for those tough scenarios. They now avoid saying “I can’t do that because the compliance department says I can’t.” That response carries an unspoken message of “I would if I could.”

As I heard one business leader say, “Don’t tell people that you don’t violate the FCPA. Keep it simple, go with, “I don’t bribe and my company doesn’t bribe.”

*     *     *

It used to be common to see defensiveness and pushback, and even obstruction, when compliance teams would articulate their message. But lately I’m seeing something very different. Business leaders are now delivering ethics and compliance directives and guidance, much to the delight of compliance teams.

And let’s be honest. When the bosses who control compensation, performance reviews, and promotions tell their personnel not to pay bribes, the message sinks in.

I welcome the new era we’re in. It doesn’t imply any lesser role for the compliance people. They are still the subject matter experts, creating the plan and seeing to its proper execution.

But business leaders and compliance departments are becoming true colleagues and allies, all aiming for the same outcome as I see them sharing the podium. That’s real progress.


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen-and-a-half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He now consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. In 2015 he was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics. He can be contacted by email here and on twitter @richardbistrong.

Share this post


Comments are closed for this article!