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VIEWPOINT: The Art of Compliance: Doing What’s Right, Not Just What’s Required

By Steve Vincze

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The rest of society got a taste of what corporate compliance officers go through when the COVID pandemic forced restrictions and requirements on the entire population.

Suddenly, people were told to wear masks, social distance, and wash their hands more regularly and thoroughly than ever before. Plenty of people didn’t like that, trying to dodge the new rules or openly defying them, even as clerks, store managers, police officers, and health professionals firmly reminded them they needed to comply.

In somewhat the same way, compliance officers for a business may appear to act as the resident scolds, reminding people when their plans or actions come into conflict with state or federal rules and regulations that govern their industries.

It doesn’t always go over well.

People often resist compliance because they don’t like to be told what to do. But compliance is about doing what’s right, not just what’s required.

Companies can face hefty fines when they fail to comply with rules that govern their activities, whether the non-compliance was inadvertent or intentional. A couple of examples: In 2020, Capital One was fined $80 million for a data breach that exposed customers’ personal information the previous year. The Cheesecake Factory came under scrutiny and reached a $125,000 settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over the SEC’s allegation that the company misled investors about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its business.

So, whether you are the CEO of the company or a compliance officer, how do you make sure people are doing what they need to do? Here a few tips:

• Listen. If you want people to listen to you and embrace your advice, you need first to listen to them, to understand their fears, their challenges, and their motivations. You need to be able to answer the “why” behind the what, such as: Why do I need to comply? What’s in it for me if I do? When it comes to compliance, the key message is that you have to listen well, hear what they are saying, and then mirror back to people that you understood them.

• Inspire and motivate. Logic alone doesn’t always win out, which may be frustrating for some leaders, but that’s when the art and science of compliance and of leadership must come to the fore. You need to touch both hearts and minds to inspire and motivate people. The trick is to get people to want to comply. Depending on who you are speaking to, you may be able to reach them rationally and sensibly. But sometimes you may need to go deeper and find out what motivates them. For example, if you are dealing with young people fresh out of college, you might show them how compliance connects to a broader purpose, that it’s not just about following some rule, but also about helping people in some way.

• Be tough. Eventually, though, you may need to get tough. You must draw limits. You have to discipline people if they don’t comply and put themselves and others in jeopardy. You must know where to draw the line, but you have to do it consistently and fairly, and you must communicate the limits very clearly.

 At the end of the day, effective compliance boils down to understanding people as human beings and using that understanding as an effective leader to inspire the desired behavior. You have to connect compliance and everyone’s role to a cause greater than any one person, a cause greater than themselves. Connect with their passion and you will inspire their compliance. Fundamentally, most people are good and want to do what is right. Apply that understanding to win them over to start winning with compliance.              

Steve Vincze is author of the upcoming book “Winning with Compliance: Strategies to Make Commercial Compliance Your Competitive Advantage” and president and CEO of TRESTLE Compliance, LLC (www.trestlecompliance.com), a consulting firm that provides compliance, risk, and regulatory services.