Three Reasons Having An Ethics/Compliance Officer Can Be A Truly Bad Idea

Ethics and compliance are obviously deeply intertwined so it makes complete conceptual sense to have an ethics/compliance officer. One stop shopping. Instant and automatic integration between ethics and compliance. It’s really pretty much of a conceptual slam-dunk no-brainer part of the path to integrity and accountability.

Some things, however, are far better in theory than in practice…

In my experience, the title of ethics/compliance officer is actually troublingly misleading and here’s why:

  • In most organizations requiring a compliance officer, there is already a full-time job (or two or three) in doing the compliance work alone. Since, also in most organizations, compliance is where the real gravity is to be found, these folks – no matter how terrific their intentions – quickly become defacto compliance officers with the ethics portion of the job taking a persistently minimal back seat at most.
  • No matter how related ethics and compliance are, they are still different practices with different strategies and tactics needed to fulfill their respective promises. It would take far more focus and training – not to speak of time – than most folks are afforded to really be able to serve both masters well. To really do either job, one pretty much has to ‘pick a lane’ and keep their focus there; trying to do both with any reasonable level of skill is a task beyond most mere mortals. And yet, calling someone an “ethics/compliance officer” suggests that they are, in fact, responsible for equally covering both sides of this highly complicated coin.

Here’s another way to think about this one… Manufacturing and sales are also highly intertwined yet I’m guessing not many organizations have a “VP for Manufacturing and Sales.” Just because two functions are highly related – or even inter-related – doesn’t mean it is therefore sensible to combine them.

  • A significant percentage of ethics/compliance officers are attorneys and, by their training, are more oriented towards the compliance side of the equation. This pre-selection frequently, in itself, skews the ethics/compliance officer’s attention towards compliance. (Before the flames start, let me be clear. This is not some subtle dig on the ethics of attorneys. I am simply saying that attorneys’ training, by its very nature, tends to be more oriented towards compliance. Add to that the above-mentioned gravity of compliance in most organizations and these folks are likely to be swimming upstream hard when it comes to attending to ethics nearly as much as to compliance.)

Want to make a solid case to both your employees and your customers that you take ethics seriously? Put someone in charge of ethics – and ethics alone – and then give them the necessary authority and resources to both investigate and intervene as needed. They will certainly need to work in concert with your compliance office. However, at that point both your compliance office and your ethics office, collectively, will be able to do their respective jobs as they actually need to be done. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the proverbial whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Will having a separate ethics and compliance officer look less efficient to some folks? No doubt and, in fact, I would say that it’s likely to look less efficient, especially when viewed solely via some spreadsheet detached from the actual demands of day-to-day ethics and compliance challenges. I would also suggest, though, that running a tight ship both on the ethics and compliance side will, in all likelihood, pay for itself many, many times over. Having one person provide both functions, however, is simply not likely to get you there.

Admittedly, maybe you’re one of the people or the one of companies who can really pull the ethics/compliance officer job off. I’ve certainly seen it happen. Often, though? No. Very no.

So, is having an ethics/compliance officer as good in the real world as in theory? You know my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.

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