Protecting the ethical integrity of a company is the heart of the compliance officer’s role. And as regulators continue to clamp down on misconduct with higher fines, compliance officers are under even greater pressure to prevent unethical conduct.
But what does it take to succeed in this mission?
We address the most crucial traits a compliance officer needs to possess to enable them to protect their company.
1. Ability to connect with people
Employees often see compliance as merely an obligation. Compliance isn't the core focus of someone working in Marketing, Strategy or Operations. In fact, it's unlikely to feature on their priority list at all. So being pulled away from their work to participate in compliance training is an inconvenience.
However, if people can't do something because it could risk a regulatory investigation, then compliance becomes more than just an inconvenience. It's a hindrance. This can create an 'us and them' environment, where the compliance officer becomes alienated from the rest of the organisation.
The most effective compliance officers connect with people on a human level. They engage with people beyond just advising on what they can and can’t do and issuing training requirements. They show interest in them as people, and not just concerning the challenges they face in their role, but on a more personal level. It could be anything from a simple hello in the corridor to bonding over a drink at a work social event. The point is, people will be much more likely to seek your advice and trust you with compliance matters if they see you as one of them.
2. Understand where they fit in the bigger picture of the business
Being a compliance officer isn’t just about drumming rules and regulations into people. The best compliance officers understand how their role fits within the broader goals and objectives of the organisation.
If you understand the motivations of the business, you’ll be far better equipped to deliver compliance programmes and training courses that deliver the appropriate messages. This knowledge means you can better anticipate the risks of the business and take the necessary steps to deal with them.
3. Effective problem-solvers
Compliance officers are met with problems every day. Someone in the business approaches them for guidance on how to handle a situation from a compliance perspective, and they need to be able to look at it from all angles and advise on the most appropriate form of action. And in many cases, the answer isn’t necessarily straightforward.
But even more than that, you need to be able to go beyond just saying 'yes' or 'no'. If the preferred approach for the business could result in a violation, you need to be active in helping find an alternative solution. Ask what the ideal outcome would be and work back from there. Wherever there is an alternative approach that would remove the risk of regulatory investigation, you need to be committed to finding it.
4. Ability to show empathy
There may be times when a senior manager or stakeholder in the business wants to go down a certain route that would benefit the business in some way, which - from a compliance perspective - just isn’t possible or desirable. You have to break this news, and you know that it will be met with disappointment.
This is where you need empathy. Clearly explain why they can’t take that course of action, lay out the risks involved which lead you to make the call that you did, and do so with both care and sensitivity. Failing to show empathy in these situations will only work to alienate compliance from the rest of the business. You’ll be seen as a hindrance and risk losing credibility.
5. Work closely with other departments
To be effective, compliance officers need to have a positive relationship with all other departments within the business. A close relationship means you’ll be better able to educate them on how they can help meet compliance goals. And they’ll feel more comfortable seeking and trusting your advice. In turn, you'll be well-placed to 'nudge' them towards compliance.
You may also need to work alongside other departments, such as IT or Finance, on projects and tasks. The ability to communicate and collaborate effectively in these situations, without getting territorial, is invaluable.
6. A proactive nature
As the driving force supporting the compliance and ethics of the entire organisation, compliance officers are under a lot of pressure. They need to stay up-to-date with new GRC issues and update course material accordingly, at the same time as keeping old content fresh and engaging. They also have to make sure everyone completes the relevant training and track those that don’t, keeping their eyes open for red flags. Then there’s the multitude of reports they have to generate, both for internal use and to satisfy regulators.
Delivering against all these responsibilities relies on being proactive. They need to stay on top of everything and not let things slip. For example, putting off the task of updating a training course with new regulations could put the company at significant risk. If employees don't have access to the right knowledge and support, you risk instances of accidental non-compliance.
Compliance officers play a vital role in the success of any organisation, especially in highly-regulated sectors. The key theme underlying all of the traits that make an effective compliance officer is being human. A compliance officer needs to be able to understand both the business and people needs of the organisation so they can support them in their goals, and at the same time, protect the sincerity of the business through compliance.