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Compliance and Careers Amid Corporate Upheaval

This week I was in Denver attending the Converge 2019 conference hosted by Convercent, and as one might expect, lots of the sessions there focused on how to apply technology to compliance programs. 

For my money, however, the most interesting session explored something quite different: how compliance officers can navigate their careers amid upheaval at your company — a merger, breakup, restructuring, or some other ordeal that leaves everyone on edge. Including you.

To no surprise, the room was packed. I heard stories such as a compliance officer who had six bosses in seven years; or someone who painstakingly developed an enterprise-wide compliance program and then the board promptly announced plans to break apart the business. I met another CCO who helped his company through a merger and was then left without a job. 

That was just at the Converge conference this week. I’ve heard countless more stories of career uncertainty upending compliance professionals’ lives. A corporate integrity agreement ends, and the CEO decides to eliminate the chief compliance officer job (or even the whole compliance team). Or you leave a stable job at Company A for a great opportunity at Company B, and four months later a new general counsel arrives who restructures the legal and compliance operations — and your skills don’t fit what the GC wants, and you’re out. Compliance officers tell me about these career curveballs all the time. 

Even if your own job is secure, there’s still the headache of leading a team during times of turmoil. You might see trusted, valuable employees bolt for other jobs ahead of potential change. You might have people streaming into your office or your text messages, anxious about future plans or suggesting bizarre schemes to derail some project they don’t like. Or maybe everyone will just get lazy because hey, what will the company do? Eliminate my job twice?

And you, the compliance team leader, still have to manage through all of that.

That was the subject of the Converge session I attended Thursday, led by Barbara Pettiti, ethics and compliance leader at Alstom; and Karin Johnson, chief compliance officer at 21st Century Fox. They offered six tips to keep your focus under those difficult circumstances. 

Tips for the Job

First, stay close to the business. Know the company’s strategic plan, or at least what the strategic plan seems to be at the moment. Know the company’s sources of revenue, and understand which sources are rising or falling, since that will hint at where changes might come. Keep meeting with your company’s risk or compliance council, since that group should include operating executives who might know more about what’s really happening. “Staying in front of people is one of the best things you can do,” Pettiti said.

Compliance officers should also do a lot of watching. Watch for new lines of business, that might supplant old operations or be spun off into separate corporations. Watch the status of whatever event is driving the uncertainty at your company: a rumored merger, the sale of an operating unit, the looming end of a corporate integrity agreement or monitorship, and so forth. If your business is the object of a bidding war between rival firms, watch the strategies those buyers use — especially how they propose to finance the deal. 

Second, keep the business moving forward. For example, you might be implementing reforms to your compliance program when the C-suite decides to split up the business or acquire a smaller rival. 

Well, the risks in your risk assessment might change under those circumstances — but the act of conducting a risk assessment doesn’t. You still need to get that done. Exactly how you might run your compliance program might change, but many fundamental tasks will still be there. 

You might need to be more targeted in planned program improvements. You might even need to shelve some projects, if they might end up getting undone later. On the other hand, generally you can keep working on a strong ethical culture, since that’s the basic ingredient for any compliance program no matter what. 

Third, have a plan and stick to it as best as possible. One big trap amid difficult change is to spend all your time responding to immediate activities, rather than executing strategic priorities. Avoid it as much as possible. 

Yes, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes the board or general counsel will put some surprise issue on your plate as a result of whatever grand plan they’re hatching for the corporation, and you have to respond. The important point is not to let those distractions overwhelm the bigger priorities you already have. 

When those distractions become your life, the company’s compliance program will suffer and the board will ultimately hang you out to dry. (“You achieved none of the goals you set at the start of the year? And you want more budget and to keep your job?”) Plus, you’ll go nuts with burnout and start seeing your therapist twice as often.

This point about balance versus burnout is a major theme in Kristy Grant-Hart’s book from last year, How to Be a Wildly Successful Compliance Officer. It’s worth reading. 

Fourth, prepare for the spike in complaints, because some skittish employees will file “questionable” cases either to avoid getting fired or to give them a retaliation claim to push when they do. 

Warn management about that possibility. Anticipate resources you might need. You might even want to refresh employee training about what retaliation or complaints are, and what protections employees do or don’t have. 

Tips for Yourself

Fifth, remember your role as ethics and compliance officer. Think about the business adviser and gatekeeper duties you have. Remember the leadership you have to provide to those on your team, and even to other employees who will still look to the ethics and compliance function for guidance about how to behave in ethically murky situations. 

To state the obvious: yes, talking about ethics when half the company might be wondering whether they’ll still have a job is difficult. So is asking anxious subordinates to do work when they’re wondering whether they’ll still have a job — or worse, asking them to do work when you know they won’t. 

Still, perfecting your role as a leader and gatekeeper is more important — to the success of a company, and of your own career — than the minutiae of running a compliance program amid upheaval. Keep that fixed in your mind. 

Plus, personally, I’ve never been upset with someone who tells me, “Yes I know this answer, but I’m not at liberty to tell you.” That’s far more respectful than serving someone a heap of baloney that doesn’t answer a colleague’s question.

Sixth, remember your own health and wellness. Focus on work-life balance. Connect with others who’ve gone through similar career angst and uncertainty — and rest assured, there are plenty of compliance officers who’ve endured the same. You could cold-call the membership of the Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics and find a sympathetic ear. 

The plain truth is, you are not in control of corporate change, and life will go on. Stressing over that uncertainty will only create new problems for you, not solve the uncertainty you already have. As Pettiti aptly said:  “If your health is compromised, I promise your job will be too.” 

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve been fired or driven out of almost every job I’ve had, so I know the unease these scenarios bring. Well, that’s life — and as cliche as it sounds, that which doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. 

I’d love to hear how you persevere and prevail, too. Drop me a line at [email protected]. Confidentiality guaranteed.

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