Compliance programs for the “big people”
Imagine a company where all the senior managers took compliance and ethics as seriously as they do traditional aspects of business (R&D, production, sales & marketing). In this company, not only would senior managers do whatever was reasonably necessary to prevent and detect violations in their own business unit or function, they would use their knowledge of and clout within the entity as a whole for making sure their peers were equally committed to promoting law abiding and ethical conduct. While thought experiments are more art than science, I find it hard to imagine any other single C&E-related factor being as powerful a force for good in organizations as this would likely be.
Leona Helmsley is reported to have said that “only the little people pay taxes” and sometimes it feels like C&E programs are only for the little people – given how often it is the “big people” who engage in the types of unlawful and unethical practices that cause the greatest harm in businesses. Indeed, the “C Suite” seems to be the “final frontier” when it comes to effective ethics and compliance programs. In an article in yesterday’s NY Times, Gretchen Morgenson identifies two recent (and somewhat similar) proposals that offer a path to addressing this area of great weakness in many companies.
One is a proposal to Citigroup shareholders that would “require that top executives at the company contribute a substantial portion of their compensation each year to a pool of money that would be available to pay penalties if legal violations were uncovered at the bank. To ensure that the money would be available for a long enough period — investigations into wrongdoing take years to develop — the proposal would require that the executives keep their pay in the pool for 10 years.”
The other is an article by Greg Zipes in the Michigan State Journal of Business and Securities Law which “calls for the creation of a contract to be signed by a company’s top executives that could be enforced after a significant corporate governance failure. Executives would agree to pay back 25 percent of their gross compensation for the three years before the beginning of improprieties. The agreement would be in effect whether or not the executives knew about the misdeeds inside their companies.” Its requirements would be triggered if, among other things “a company pleaded guilty to a crime [or]…if an executive signed a financial document filed with the S.E.C. that subsequently proved false and required an earnings restatement of at least $5 million.”
Both of these proposals make sense to me. While a company should, of course, use traditional forms of compliance (e.g., training, auditing, monitoring) to address C-Suite risks, the best mitigant of all may be other “big people” – if they are properly motivated to prevent and detect wrongdoing by their peers.
For further reading:
– “Where is the accountability?” (a dialogue with Steve Priest in ECOA Connects).