Compliance, Then and Now

Sometimes compliance and business ethics enthusiasts can lift our spirits with a reminder of our place in history. Today we have two: one echo of good business conduct from the past, one looking at where this profession should go in the future.

First, the past. Harvard Business School has a neat review of The Book of Art and Trade, written by one Benedetto Cotrugli in 1458—apparently one of the first books on business ethics, ever. It has just been translated into English for the first time.

The full translation of the book is available online for $99, which might be too pricey for anyone except those who minored in Medieval history. The HBS review alone, however, is a witty and engaging reminder that the basic principles of business ethics have been around for a long, long time.

Cotrugli belonged to a family of clothing traders in Venice. Apparently he was a student at the University of Bologna and wanted to pursue his academic interests, but eventually returned to the family business. There, he wrote:

“I found the state of general education inadequate, ill-organised, arbitrary and useless … [I]t pained me that this useful and necessary activity [trade] had fallen into the hands of such undisciplined and uncouth people, who carry on without moderation or orderliness, ignoring and perverting the law, and that this profession should be considered of so little importance and be so neglected by the wise … a forum for empty chatter where anything goes.”

Dude, if you think that’s bad, you should have stuck around until we invented Twitter.

That disarray prompted Cotrugli to write his book. He framed it in four parts, including basic business principles, civic duties, the role of religion in life, and the importance of a peaceful domestic life at home.


Ye Olde Code of Business Conduct

Are those four parts Cotrugli cited 550 years ago so different from what we talk about today? Don’t we talk all the time about the importance of core ethical values? Don’t we often see that a person with an unethical personal life is also a disaster in business and politics, and vice versa? (Not thinking of any particular president in Washington these days, I swear.)

His book dwells on virtues that any ethics and compliance professional—or CEO, for that matter—would praise as invaluable for success: honor, prudence, integrity, diligence, civility, composure, temperance.

Cotrugli also delves into technical matters, such as proper accounting of money, selling for cash and credit, and when to write off bad debt. (Write off 50 percent after one year, the rest after two years, ““because for the merchant losing time and losing money are the same thing.”)

Cotrugli did recommend that a businessman retire at 50, before the mind begins to go. Clearly he had no concept of the 401(k) plan with underfunded balances. Then again, in 15th century Italy, average life span was 53.

‘Compliance’ on LinkedIn

Meanwhile, a modern-day compliance officer asked a valuable question the other day on LinkedIn: Why doesn’t the site allow you to list “compliance” as your profession on your profile page?

Desarie Green, associate counsel for policy regulation at PRA Group, uncorked about LinkedIn bottling up our profession under the “legal” category, and she has a point:

I understand that [compliance] not an industry but it is involved in every industry… Many amazing people have made it the focus of their career working in the many different areas from financial, healthcare, trade (import/export), education, privacy, etc. I am an attorney and a compliance professional. I am able to check “legal,” but there is no option for my other half. Some may say that compliance falls under legal, but it doesn’t. They are two different arenas. I think it deserves a spot on the drop-down menu.

Green has a point, and it’s even worse than she states—LinkedIn has no option for “internal auditing,” either; they closest category is “accounting.” So even if you approach the compliance profession from the financial side (and many do), you’re in the same oversimplified boat as Green.

I understand that in the modern job search, recruiters search by keywords in your profile’s summary description, and you can cram “compliance,” “audit,” “ethical conduct” and all the rest into that space so your profile gets more hits.

On the other hand, if you want to search for a job, compliance doesn’t exist as an industry option. (Go ahead, visit the Career Interests page and enter “compliance” into the Industry box near the bottom. You won’t find a match.)

Yes, you can search the Jobs page generally, and as you start typing “compliance” into the main search box, you’ll see more than a dozen types of compliance jobs: chief compliance officer, director of compliance, legal compliance, regulatory compliance, standards compliance. It’s a lot, and those titles are specific. You get the same rich range when entering “internal audit,” too.

But Green’s point is more about LinkedIn respecting what compliance is as a career, rather than LinkedIn’s ability to generate job leads for you. On those grounds, she’s right. Compliance isn’t legal, any more than auditing is accounting. It also isn’t an industry, but rather a profession—one that can carry us through many different industries over the course of a career.

Let’s treat compliance as such. As Benedetto Cotrugli shows, this field has staying power.

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