A person with good manners might put it this way: On the topic of compliance officers, opinion is still divided. Others might just say that compliance officers are tolerated but never really liked, and for good reasons.
What are those good reasons? Here are a few:
Compliance officers are professional snitches, ultimately loyal to the feds. A recent SEC leader promoted the idea that compliance officers are gatekeepers and monitors. She said prosecutors and regulators couldn’t possibly police all public companies on their own. The feds therefore depend on help, and compliance officers are duty-bound to provide that help. That’s flattering if you’re a compliance officer. To everyone else, it sounds like a warning that a deputized compliance officer might turn you in.
Compliance officers cost big bucks but don’t produce a cent. When you’re part of overhead, forget about being treated with respect. Anyone whose paycheck comes from “general and administrative expenses” is stuck in corporate Siberia. Companies exist to make money, the thinking goes, so only those directly contributing to the bottom line are real players. The rest? Whoopee doo.
Who asked for compliance officers anyway? Would any public company have a compliance department if a government bureaucracy somewhere didn’t require it? Product development, yes. Sales and marketing, essential. Customer service, of course. Even accounting is helpful. But compliance? Come on. Compliance departments didn’t spring from any commercial need that companies had. They were imposed from outside — like aliens sent to colonize earth.
I hear some of you. You’re saying, “Hold on. Those reasons not to like compliance officers sound awfully familiar.” That’s true. Anyone who labored in or near a corporate law department during the prior century heard a lot of similar words, but directed then at in-house lawyers.
Until . . . . something great happened. Company lawyers proved their worth. They showed how people from different disciplines could strengthen the organization, not make it weaker. Today it’s unthinkable that a business of any real size would operate without a general counsel sitting within hailing distance of the CEO.
It’s been a similar journey of acceptance for compliance officers. The new profession, by the way, started in the highly regulated banking and insurance industries, and spread to the healthcare sector, then into the general corporate population. Today the chief compliance officer, like the general counsel, is likely to be found sitting close to the CEO, with an open channel to the board of directors.
And as happened with in-house lawyers a few decades earlier, the reasons to support compliance officers and welcome their contributions are becoming clearer. Here are some of those reasons:
Compliance officers are subject-matter experts. Smart boards and executives like having experts nearby. Compliance officers know, for example, how the FCPA, UK Bribery Act, Sapin II, and similar laws work. They know what “best practices” and “adequate procedures” will help the troops stay on solid ethical and legal ground. That’s one way the compliance officer’s specialized knowledge protects the brand and its stakeholders from harm.
Compliance officers are true executives. They don’t just think, they do. Training, due diligence, feedback loops, internal investigations — it’s a full plate of hands-on work.
Compliance officers are umpires, not cheerleaders. More and more, compliance officers are found on executive planning teams, helping guide the company through risk-based business decisions. Are there reputational risks to weigh? What’s the long-term impact on the community? Is this decision consistent with the values we stand for? Compliance officers can ask (and help answer) those questions.
Compliance officers elevate the company culture. In the modern corporation, compliance officers join with CEOs to craft the message (the vision thing) and keep it alive. A wholesome corporate mission statement can’t be separated from ethics and compliance. Respect for the law and for other people are the core of corporate citizenship and are “good business.” That’s why today’s CEOs so often appear on stage during compliance training days, even for the rank-and-file.
And here’s one more reason to appreciate compliance officers. It’s at the top of my list: They stand against graft. That may seem obvious. But it’s easy to forget that the real point of having compliance officers is to stop bad things from happening.
For me, then, opinion about compliance officers isn’t divided after all. I’m all for them.