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Eric Carlson
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The best (and saddest) lesson I ever learned about compliance training

It was my job to tell the bright young employee he was being fired. I was the company’s outside counsel in Southeast Asia and the employee, a Singaporean, worked mainly in Malaysia. That’s where he’d paid a bribe to win work for his company.

He had no idea why he’d been told to come by my office that morning, although he believed it had something to do with the new work in Malaysia. He was friendly, enthusiastic, and articulate.

When I told him he was being terminated effective immediately for paying a bribe, he was crushed.

Yes, he knew about the company’s anti-bribery compliance program. And yes, he knew the company said bribes weren’t permitted. But the only way to win the work was to pay a small bribe, he said. So he’d taken the initiative. He found out who needed to be bribed. He negotiated hard to minimize the graft payment. He even paid the bribe from his own pocket.

He slumped and groaned when I explained that not only was he being fired, but the company might also refer the case to the police (they didn’t).

What went wrong? He’d had state-of-the-art compliance training. Why didn’t he get it? His native tongue was Bahasa Malay, but he spoke excellent English. So, was there some kind of cultural gap?

After he landed his dream job with my client (a U.S.-based multinational), he’d worked hard to impress his bosses. When the Malaysia work came up, he saw an opportunity to shine. Again, he knew about the company’s anti-bribery program but somehow didn’t believe it applied in all cases.

“Without my help, the contract would have gone to the Italians or the Koreans,” he told me. “I did what I needed to do for the company.”

He saw himself as a hero. He hoped for a raise and a promotion. Instead, his dream of a career with the company was completely shattered.

After that sad morning, I understood this about compliance training: It has to be drummed into people’s heads, repeated often, preferably from a chorus — not only compliance officers and professional trainers, but also inside and outside lawyers, HR, the company brass, and so on.

Repetition and multiple voices are the only way to close cultural gaps or clear up misunderstandings. That promising Singaporean employee had sat through his training and read the policy. But he didn’t get it. Maybe his admiration for the company clouded his judgment. Maybe the excitement of landing his dream job deafened him to the compliance message. Who knows what went on in his head?

By the time he realized that morning in my office that his compliance obligations were absolutely real and deadly serious, it was too late.

Since then, I’ve tried never to underestimate how easily people can miss the compliance message. Compliance training isn’t about efficiency. It’s about helping everyone get on board, no matter how many times the message needs to be repeated and how many messengers it takes.

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