Happy Talk and the Compliance Gap – Paper v. Reality

happy4There is nothing more infuriating in the ethics and compliance world than a Chief Compliance Officer who relies on Happy Talk reports to senior managers and the Board. The CCO who engages in Happy Talk does a disservice to the profession and to themselves.

So why are companies still not embedding real ethics and compliance programs? Too many are relying on paper programs that look good from the outside but have no meaningful follow through. Is this all that companies can do to respond to real and significant corruption risks and enforcement?

CCOs bear some of the responsibility for this performance gap. They have an obligation to report honestly and truthfully about compliance performance, compliance needs and potential risks to senior managers and board members.

I worry that the rise in the compliance profession may create a rise in Happy Talk presentations. To clarify my terms, a Happy Talk presentation is easy to spot – look at your company’s latest ethics and compliance quarterly report. If the report consists of graphs showing number of persons trained, number of complaints and types, and even numbers and types of internal investigations, that is a red flag.

If the CCO’s report includes no mention of compliance culture, deficiencies in existing compliance policies and performance, and steps being taken to address significant risks, you have a Happy Talk report.happy6

Senior management and the Board are lulled into thinking that everything is okay – compliance is doing its job and risks are being minimized. Imagine their shock when next month the company receives a grand jury subpoena from the Justice Department or a document subpoena from the SEC.

Policies and procedures on the books are one thing — performance is quite another. A real and effective ethical culture is easy to identify – it permeates a company’s operations. There is a pride in the performance of tasks and everyone can point to the company’s culture.

It is moving beyond the point of paper compliance that is the challenge. Too often, CCOs are reluctant to provide negative messages. I understand that reluctance but there is a way to communicate positively and inform senior managers and the Board about risks and problems addressing those risks.

happy3CCOs want to take a place in the C-Suite where they can exercise influence. Happy Talk presentations are antithetical to influence and undermine the importance of the CCO in the corporate C-Suite.   A CCO can fulfill his or her responsibilities by being honest and by communicating solutions. That is the definition of an effective manager.

Everyone can cite problems in a company. We just celebrated Thanksgiving and everyone can tell you what is wrong with each family member sitting at the table. The challenge is to acknowledge those deficiencies and then support solutions to the problems with the company (or the family member, without being bossy).

Follow through is what makes the difference between corporate talkers and corporate doers – the ones who we all look to in every organization to get the job done. A CCO with such a reputation will assume an important spot in the company leadership function. It is time for CCOs to step up and do their job.