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Harry Cassin
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Richard Bistrong
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Eric Carlson
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After Covid-19, will ‘compliance pauses’ be part of the recovery?

When the coronavirus lifts, as it sometime will, our global supply chains and sales cycles will again ramp up. There will then be tremendous and well-intentioned pressures to start moving goods and services through the global economy, and much of that pressure will fall to the frontlines: folks and teams in procurement, supply chain management, and sales.

We can already forecast that the resumption of business won’t be linear; it will be faster in some parts of the world than others. Same with markets and marketplaces; not everything and everyone will resume work at the same pace. There will be multinationals ready to ship, with clients not ready to receive. Goods sitting in pallets ready for shipping will remain idle while freight forwarders and logistics companies re-organize and start to come back to work. All the while executives and managers will be looking to see how processes, rules and procedures can be streamlined to jump start their businesses, not to slow them down. In other words, there are going to be requests and pleas from multiple points to cut the red tape.

Take the hypothetical “goods sitting on a dock” without a freight-forwarder ready to collect, but with a client ready to receive, and anxious for deliveries so they can restart their sales cycles. It might take significant time to on-board and perform due diligence on a new freight forwarder, logistics company, and/or customs broker. Meanwhile, executives and sales teams will be clamoring for speed, with compliance officers caught in between those pressure points produced by the need for speed.

Should compliance leaders stick to those standard procedures that might have taken years to develop and implement? Or are there reasonable measures and exceptions, even on an interim basis, to partner with operations and streamline those processes if that will contribute to cutting the red tape?

But where exactly does sensibly cutting red tape in these unprecedented times become circumventing compliance? I don’t know if that’s an entirely solvable challenge. But to find out, why not start engaging in some if/then planning right now. The idea is to affirmatively address where those pressure points and bottlenecks might arise, as opposed to waiting until they surface in reality, and risk employees taking matters into their own hands. Also, while teams might be in place and waiting for the command to restart operations, why not solicit their views?

Two professors from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — Sendhil Mullainathan and Nobel Prize-winner Richard H. Thaler — recently wrote about who better than “the people on the front lines … to identify the factors inhibiting their progress.” The professors even set up a website to “suggest regulatory pauses” that might help in the management of the Covid-19 crisis.

How ingenious. Can your organization set up a similar platform to solicit feedback and suggestions? For example, one of the authors’ suggestions was to “take a deep breath on privacy worries” where smart phone geo-tracking could help to monitor and contain Covid-19, but that would require the easing of “data privacy regulations” in some countries.

Soliciting employee views about where there might be a need or an opportunity to suggest “compliance pauses” isn’t the same as saying that any of the pauses will happen. Many policies, rules and procedures are based in law and ethical principles that are immovable. That might result in continued frustration for teams and executives working to bring operations back up to speed. But are there other processes where a more flexible approach might make sense, even temporarily, if they help bring the organization back to work? Further, are there also ways whereby your company can seek regulatory guidance for exceptions in light of the Covid-19 emergency, as we have already seen with respect to some of our global trade laws, with clinical studies and trials, and medical staffing?

Is all this too radical? Should compliance professionals even talk about “compliance pauses,” instead of “compliance advances?” Here we can again follow the lead of Professors Mullainathan and Thaler, who concluded that “crises require new ways of thinking.” All of us — compliance professionals included — certainly have a crisis to deal with. So let’s be open to those new ways of thinking of how we can cut red tape while reinforcing ethics and compliance. It might just mean taking a fresh and interim look at how we intertwine compliance and commerce in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus.

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  1. Thank you Richard, I have some brief responses to some of your questions.
    “Should compliance leaders stick to those standard procedures that might have taken years to develop and implement?” If those standard procedures are necessary to comply with the law you don’t have much of a choice but to stick with them. There may be procedures that indulge a conservative posture that may be loosened. It makes sense to solicit staff to identify bottlenecks. I’d say in the current situation, it’s essential. This can help in resource allocation and perhaps loosen a more conservative posture.
    “(A)re there reasonable measures and exceptions, even on an interim basis, to partner with operations and streamline those processes if that will contribute to cutting the red tape?” Sure, reasonable procedural adjustments are fine if they don’t compromise the regulatory requirements.
    “Should compliance professionals even talk about “compliance pauses,” instead of “compliance advances?” The notion of a “compliance pause” is a policy question that is above any CCO’s control. Compliance professionals may adjust procedures to accomplish a particular compliance requirement but there is no authority to ignore the compliance requirement in the absence of regulatory consequences. Remember that the lumpen tax payer has to deal with the reality of consequences and lack the protection of tenure that Thaler and Mullainathan enjoy.
    This is one of the reasons why compliance policies and procedures should have their regulatory impetus clearly articulated. You should not have to wait for a crisis to determine what you can or cannot relinquish.

  2. Richard, this is an important subject, especially considering the cause of the COVID-19, Coronavirus pandemic. If anything, compliance should be enhanced when the Coronavirus crisis is over to help ensure that the type of mistakes that caused the crisis are not repeated.

    As compliance professionals we must temporarily work twice as hard so that there are no delays caused by such an approach. Compliance regulatory requirements must never be sacrificed for the sake of expediency during the aftermath of a crisis. If necessary, additional personnel must be retained to keep the company up to speed with compliance objectives.

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