Are you a member of the “compliance elite”?

In “Compliance Elites ”Professor Miriam Baer of Brooklyn  Law School writes:

“As corporate compliance has expanded its influence, so too has the status of those who implement and oversee the firm’s compliance function. Chief compliance officers (CCOs), who are often (but not exclusively) lawyers by training, increasingly boast the types of resumes one associates with elite lawyers. In many ways, this is good news for compliance. There may, however, be several downsides to a strategy of relying so heavily on a cadre of compliance elites. The aim of this Article is to discuss one of these downsides.”

At the outset, I question how significant the phenomenon of compliance elites is.  (As used by Baer, “the term ’elite’ refers to an attorney’s academic and postgraduate achievements: her education, her awards while in law school, her clerkship, and the various positions she held after law school.” )  In my nearly thirty years in the field I have encountered many CCO’s who, while not elite, have been very successful in developing and implementing sound compliance programs. We still have a ways to go before elite is the norm,  And that to me is a good thing.

Still, as noted above, there are many “pluses” to having elite compliance personnel. Baer lists here recruiting top-flight human capital and otherwise securing necessary resources for the compliance program.  To me this is key, both as a matter of common managerial sense and because the U.S. Department of Justice places great emphasis on these factors in its criteria in evaluating programs.

Additionally, by hiring members of the compliance elite, “the organization emits potent internal and external signals. Within the firm, the CCO’s arrival affirms to its rank-and-file employees that corporate management is committed to improving its compliance effort. That, in turn, improves morale among those inclined to follow the law and potentially induces broader and earlier internal whistle-blowing.”

Finally, on the downside,  Baer argues: “imagine a new CCO confronts a series of performance targets upon entering the firm. Which ones merit the closest attention, and which ones deserve to be shelved immediately? If the firm is emerging from a scandal, the worst systems may be obvious to everyone. Beyond this, however, reasonable people will differ. It will be the CCO’s responsibility to tread carefully but thoroughly in determining which additional performance goals merit a closer look, and it may not be the goal itself that is the problem. It may be how the firm measures the goal, how it compensates (or punishes) performance aimed at achieving said goal, or how quickly it expects its employees to meet its goal that induce different degrees of misconduct. It is within this ambiguous gray zone that performance blind spots are most likely to emerge and do their damage. Absent blunt evidence to the contrary, someone who has repeatedly scored in the top percentiles nationally on standardized tests; who has then followed up that performance by scoring at the top of a law school’s grading curve; and who has bested many of her competitors in series of workplace mini tournaments might not find a series of severe or unforgiving performance targets problematic.”

This is interesting but, in my view, a stretch. While lots of life experiences can contribute to cognitive biases, I just don’t think doing well on  a standardized test rises to that level.

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