A Nobel Prize in Compliance & Ethics?

President Trump continues to dominate the C&E news – or at least this blog’s coverage of such news. The story of the week: a team of ethics advisors was named for the White House and a chief compliance counsel was appointed at the Trump Organization.  When taken together, these measures can be viewed as creating a C&E program addressed to the President’s conflicts of interest.

This C&E program raises a number of interesting questions. Perhaps the most significant – as noted by Roy Snell, head of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics – is whether “the new positions [have] enough authority and independence to be effective. [Snell added] compliance officers typically have power to launch investigations on their own and set up programs to educate employees on ethics, assess risks and allow for anonymous reporting of ethics trouble. Lacking that power, Snell said, the new compliance counsel could ‘struggle to prevent, find and fix ethical and regulatory problems.’”

A second area of interest – touched on briefly in Snell’s comments – is risk assessment. The issue here partly concerns process: will the White House Ethics Advisors and Trump Organization Chief Compliance Counsel have a rigorous, structured approach to identifying particular risk areas and using that information to inform key aspects of their program? Deploying  risk assessments of this sort is widely seen as a foundational element of effective C&E programs.

But there is also a substantive dimension to this area, too: what risks will the Ethics Advisors and Chief Compliance Counsel address? In particular, how will they take on the all-important issue of Trump’s avoiding not only actual but also apparent COIs?

The challenge here is that – due to the President’s refusal to release his tax returns – there is some concern that when it comes to business dealings he may not be putting America first. Will this adverse ethical inference drawn from a lack of transparency be part of the risk assessment equation, as logically it should be?

Third, there is the question of culture generally and tone at the top in particular. As all C&E professionals know, culture generally overrides (or “trumps”) policies and procedures when it comes to shaping behavior in organizations.

This is especially true when it comes to giving whistleblowers the courage to report suspected wrongdoing. Providing such comfort  is hard enough even in the best of circumstances, but will be truly daunting with respect to a man who rose to fame telling people “You’re fired.”

How will the new team deal with the culture challenge of promoting C&E in this setting? Honestly, I have a hard time imagining how this can be accomplished. But if they do succeed they should be considered for a Nobel Prize in compliance & ethics.

But, this bit of whimsy notwithstanding,  I should stress that while I’m skeptical about this effort I do hope it will succeed. This would not only be good for the country in a general way – but could be a showcase for the value of effective C&E programs.



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