How Business Owners Can Change The Conversation About Compliance

Previously published in Forbes

Co-Authored with Agata Antonow

The man in the soft, gray suit stormed out of the office, slamming a door as he went. Everyone jumped and then scurried to get back to work. A pall fell over the office.

A minute later, the director of the compliance department at the auditing firm appeared at the door of the same office, looking pale and drawn. He rushed into the courtyard outside and pulled out his phone. Sitting down heavily on a bench, he called up his executive coach.

“I can’t take this anymore. The firm’s owners blame me for the rules and go around me to the president. My job is to prevent IRS violations from happening, but I seem to get stuck with all the blame when I’m trying to help!”

Welcome to the world of compliance.

Defining The Issues

Compliance is hardly a sexy business term and most people don’t think of the compliance department as a group of superheroes. Oh, there’s no doubt compliance is important — no one wants the IRS or FINRA to come calling — but having to keep a company in line in today’s regulatory framework can be a thankless job. Issues often come up for compliance professionals, and they tend to hinge around:

Finger-pointing: Nobody likes to be told their current business plan is a no-go because of government regulations, and compliance professionals often find themselves blamed for trying to help organizations follow the rules. In fact, a fascinating recent case involved the FBI arresting a VW compliance professional instead of someone in operations during an investigation into emission violations. Even though the compliance professional wasn’t the one making the decisions about emissions, they were the one blamed—even by authorities.

Disengagement: The repetitive, detail-oriented nature of the work can mean employee disengagement. It can also be hard to get employees and other departments excited about compliance. And compliance teams themselves don’t see their roles as “guardians of the galaxy” even though they represent the tough relationship between capitalism and governmental oversight.

Personality conflict: Compliance professionals tend to be introverted, and this can lead to some head-butting with more extroverted entrepreneurial company owners. Office politics and communication problems can be the result.

Metrics: As one of my clients explained it to me, compliance means being successful when bad things don’t happen. It can be difficult to create enticing goals around the idea of “nothing bad happened.” It can also make successes harder to quantify in a way that motivates.

What To Do

1. Create Trust

One of the first priorities for companies with compliance department issues is to establish trust. This can mean becoming more transparent and accountable on an organizational and personal level. It may mean running an evaluation of the organization to see where changes could be made. It can also mean encouraging more transparency by holding open meetings and asking for feedback so everyone in the organization knows what is going on and rumors can’t take hold.

Compliance means being successful when bad things don’t happen.

To establish trust, it’s also important to respect the hierarchy and organizational structure of a company. No one wants to hear they can’t claim their expected deduction on taxes, but trying to create a workaround by ignoring the compliance department and taking the proposal to the president hurts trust and can lead to violations.

2. Build Empathy

It’s also important to build a more empathetic company culture. We all need to connect with one another more compassionately. In a compliance department, this may mean asking compliance professionals to have more of a voice. Ask them to give presentations to managers and employees, ask them for opinions, and show curiosity about their findings. Rather than shutting down conversations, engaging in compassionate listening makes all parties feel more valued.

3. Create Context And Gain Respect

To really change the discussions and relationship between compliance and organizational departments, it’s important to empower compliance professionals to create a context for themselves within the organization — a new way of speaking to others, defining themselves, and talking about their role.

It’s important to empower compliance professionals to create a context for themselves within the organization.

Maybe compliance professionals won’t see themselves as the guardians of the galaxy, but what would happen if they started seeing their work as a truly noble profession? If they were able to reconnect with their authentic goals, they might start seeing themselves as “sentries for impeccability.” This is not just semantics. Making this sort of authentic internal shift where compliance professionals can start rewiring the ways they speak to themselves and others can inspire others to speak to them in a different way. It can be the cornerstone to building respect.

4. Build A Fun Environment

In addition to building a compassionate workplace, it’s important to build a fun environment. Compliance professionals may spend hours reviewing lists of numbers and looking for anomalies, or spend days checking company policies against stacks of government documents. This level of meticulous work can be draining for even the most dedicated team, so some creative thinking may be needed to engage fun. This may mean group travel time or other incentives to look forward to.

5. Take Responsibility

Since finger-pointing is a common theme, it’s essential that everyone at the organization take personal responsibility. Teach employees to move from a victim modality to an empowered state. Have them become creators rather than victims by focusing on what they can do. Employees can take personal responsibility for their own results, which moves the department away from finger-pointing and toward results. Addressing conflict styles and recognizing personality and approach differences, while honoring them with open dialogue, is a good place to start.

Compliance is difficult and it can be a stretch to try to eliminate all frustration and slammed doors. But changing the conversation about compliance within companies can mean frustration with regulations doesn’t translate into disrespect, or blaming directed unfairly at the very people trying to keep companies from facing fines and audits.

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