The Mitford Sisters and the Compliance Audit

Mitford SistersDeborah Cavendish died last week. She was the last surviving member of an extraordinary group of women known as the ‘Mitford Sisters’. They were six daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, the 2nd Baron Redesdale and the former Sydney Bowles. The six had about as varied lives as one could possibly have from six different yet related siblings. Nancy (1904-73) became an author and wrote “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate.” Pamela (1907-94), who grew up wanting to be a horse, married a horseman who became a physicist. Diana (1910-2003) married Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley, in the presence of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Unity (1914-1948) fell in love with Hitler and was Eva Braun’s rival for his affections; she died a decade after her attempted suicide with the bullet still in her head. Jessica (1917-96) was a communist. This did not prevent her from eloping with Churchill’s nephew and moving to the United States, where she penned “The American Way of Death” and other books. Deborah developed a passion for chickens and later married Andrew Cavendish, who became the Duke of Devonshire, making Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire.

Deborah’s major accomplishment was to adapt the Duke ancestral home of Chatsworth into self-sustaining family business. She kept up a personal and active involvement in this project for nearly 40 years, until her husband died and she became the Dowager Duchess. Today, Chatsworth is one of the most visited sites in England.

I thought about Deborah, her remaking of Chatsworth and how she and her sisters remade themselves from the fairly-tale princess lives they grew up with when I read a recent article in the Red Flag Group’s Compliance Insider, September-October issue, entitled “Rethinking the typical audit”, by Georgia White. The piece recognized that the standard financial audit clause may be of little use to the compliance practitioner but it can be reworked “to include proactive compliance obligations which can be an effective and valuable way to positively manage relationships with distributors and resellers.” Some of the reasons for typical audit clauses with such parties are disfavored and were identified as “insufficiently tailored and poorly defined” or such audit clauses have some type of “catch-all” provision which allows a company to audit more than simply its relationship with a distributor or reseller. Such audit clauses were noted to “represent little value for both the client and the business partner.”

Compliance Audit Clause

The first focus of the article was that “Compliance audits should be aimed at engaging business partners to participate in compliance initiatives pro-actively, whether by way of interview or discussion, integrity circles or forums, or healthy checks or periodic review” all supplemented by occasional transaction sampling. In other words, you must do the work required in managing the relationship after the contract is signed or Step 5 in the Five Step lifecycle management of third parties. The article suggested the following compliance audit clause, “In addition to maintaining proper records and accounts in relation to Distributor/Reseller’s use of product X, Distributor/Reseller will participate in compliance health checks and periodic reviews, and attend integrity circle and forums on a regular basis as required by Supplier Y. In the event of an allegation of misconduct, upon seven (7) days written notice Supplier Y (or its authorized agent)may conduct an inspection and audit all relevant facilities and records of Distributor/Reseller to verify compliance with obligations under this Agreement. Such audit is to be conducted in business hours at Supplier Y’s own expense and in such a manner as not to unreasonably interfere with Distributor/Reseller’s normal business activity.”

Getting buy-in from business partners

The piece suggests that in this manner of pro-actively engaging your Distributor/Reseller you can help maintain “the integrity of the relationship” and keep “open and transparent lines of communication.” While it may be easier to include such a clause with a new Distributor/Reseller; you may face a challenge with such a relationship which has been long standing. However for an effective Distributor/Reseller to be maintained, the author believes that everyone must be treated equally (the Fair Process Doctrine in play) as “compliance audits should apply to new and existing partners alike.” The key is communication by educating your Distributor/Reseller base “on the value of this kind of proactive exchange on compliance issues during business-planning sessions.” In other words, set expectations by talking to your business partners about why the compliance audit is necessary and, more importantly, have them understand the “risks associated with product diversion and unethical behaviour.”

When should the audit clause be added?

The piece takes on another touchy subject in audit clauses which is timing by stating, “To maintain positive relationships with existing business partners it is important to consider the timing of any proposed changes to existing contractual provisions.” However White provided some timing points for initiating this discussion.

  • Contract renewal cycle. If such a discussion is brought up during the regular renewal cycle you certainly should have good argument about such programs under a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) best practices compliance program. The debate about whether distributors were covered was ongoing until a couple of years ago so many companies may not have considered auditing such relationships. Moreover, White notes that if you raise the issue during a renewal cycle, “business partners are less likely to invoke suspicion that is a ‘targeted’ requirement” you are aiming only at them.
  • Annual business planning sessions. Such meetings usually entail an overall strategy component so White believes it is a good time to bring up the issue in the context of your company’s overall anti-corruption compliance efforts. You should have the opportunity to “discuss best-practice strategy and introduce the possibility of proactive compliance auditing for the relationship going forward.” The more you can focus on the ‘partner’ nature of the compliance obligation the more this should resonate with your Distributor/Reseller.
  • Company-wide annual meetings with Distributor/Resellers. Here White suggests that if you bring all of your Distributor/Resellers together and announce the auditing requirement, you may be able to demonstrate that auditing is now a system wide requirement. She believes “The chance of buy-in is increased if it is perceived that other competitors are already actively engaging with you in this manner.”
  • White suggests, particularly if you are in a high risk environment or need to institute such an audit right sooner rather than later, to negotiate over audits rights. She suggests “consider introducing the proposed change in tandem with a benefit that is being rolled out to the business partner.” I would add that you could also sweeten up the pot.

From the overall tone of White’s article, the key seems to communication. Communication can be used to show that adding and then invoking a compliance audit clause is not necessarily a negative outcome. But more than communication with your Distributor/Resellers is the concept from the Fair Process Doctrine; that is, if the process is fair, people and business partners may be more willing to accept a perceived negative outcome. This will go a long way to alleviating fears from Distributor/Resellers that they are being targeted for some nefarious reason or worse, that your company may be using the information obtained in a compliance audit to drive down the commercial value of the relationship.