The Frustration of CCO Job Searches

Today let’s pivot back to the job market for compliance professionals, to dissect a hiring habit that I suspect drives you all absolutely nuts: general counsels mucking around with compliance officer job descriptions and personnel plans when those folks don’t really know what they’re talking about. 

Compliance officers tell me these tales of derailment in job hunting on a regular basis. Usually their story starts with the compliance professional applying for some fairly senior role, such as a VP of compliance or chief compliance officer role. The person often has internal referrals, perhaps even from the CCO who is moving onto other pastures and tells HR, “This is a strong candidate.” You have an interview with HR and they, too, say you’re a strong candidate. Everything looks like it’s on the right track.

Then comes the derailment. HR goes silent for one week, two weeks, ignoring your polite and dutiful follow-up emails. Eventually they reply to say the company is “moving in a different direction” or has decided to “downgrade the role.” Return to Square 1. 

At least according to the compliance officers who tell me these tales, the culprit behind these frustrating experiences (as we have heard many times before) is the general counsel. 

Let me give a more specific example. This was relayed to me in January, from a compliance professional I know in the tech sector. He saw that the chief compliance officer at Company XYZ — a fairly large company, with several billion in revenue and enough name recognition that you’d know the firm if I identified it — had decided to make a career switch; the CCO job would now be open. My acquaintance knew the CCO fairly well and asked about the job.

The CCO was more than happy to refer my friend to HR. The rest of his story followed the pattern described above: after a solid interview and flattering comments from HR about moving ahead to further interviews, the HR rep went silent. Three weeks later, he heard that the CCO role had been downgraded to a director of regulatory compliance. The CCO title would be assumed by — you guessed it — the general counsel. 

The Real Battle CCOs Face

My friend above suspects that the general counsel butted heads with his chief compliance officer over corporate culture. While the CCO (whom I know, and is a strong personality) saw his role as building a strong culture of integrity, the general counsel (whom I don’t, and sounds like a drip) viewed the compliance function as very much about regulatory compliance. 

So yet again we seem back to that age-old question: Who is responsible for corporate culture? Or more precisely, to what extent should a chief compliance officer be responsible for corporate culture, if at all? 

This is an important question for several reasons. 

First, in my experience most ambitious compliance professionals (the ones angling for those CCO jobs at large companies) want lots of responsibility for corporate culture. They want to talk about the importance of good conduct, they want to expose wrongdoers to remind everyone else at the company that ethics is a serious issue, they want to talk with the board about ethical culture, and so forth. Like, grappling with questions of corporate culture is a big challenge, and ambitious people want big challenges. A job where you have little or no say in corporate culture may not be one you want to pursue.

Second, regulators now very much see a culture of integrity and compliance as an important thing. So if compliance officers are responsible for administering the compliance program through policies, training, hotline investigations, and testing — shouldn’t they have some influence and say over how corporate culture supports (or falls short of) the compliance program? 

But if a general counsel sees things differently, that leaves the compliance officer looking for a job in a difficult position. Most likely, your career advancement is thwarted (see friend, above, watching the CCO role devolve into a director of regulatory compliance). Or even if you do end up in a CCO role, you might end up butting heads with the GC over the full scope of your duties and influence, which doesn’t sound like much fun either.

I know many general counsels are not like this. Many see the chief compliance officer as an important part of the management team — but enough don’t that I keep getting a steady stream of complaints like my friend above; I have for years. So this question of the CCO’s role in shaping and supporting corporate culture is one of the most important you’d need to answer as you talk with a company about coming aboard. 

Where Does This Leave the CCO?

Nowhere pleasant, unfortunately. Restructurings are a part of corporate life, as are dunder-headed executives who don’t know as much about the business as they think they do. 

We could say this is yet another reason why the CCO shouldn’t report into the general counsel. Or at least, as my friend said, “not report to GCs who don’t know what the [expletive] they’re doing in ethics and compliance.” 

My friend might be onto something. As much as we’d all like the CCO to report directly to the CEO, that may never become a widespread practice, especially once we start talking about companies outside the Fortune 500 (and probably a bunch even within the lower tiers of the Fortune 500, too).

So perhaps my friend’s comment about GCs who don’t know what they’re doing in ethics and compliance is the place to start. When researching a potential new employer or even during interviews, try to determine just how much the general counsel really does know about ethics and compliance. 

If the answer is “not much,” or you get the sense that the GC looks at ethics and compliance with a “how hard can this be?” attitude, that’s your signal to drop out and look elsewhere. Then email me at [email protected] to tell me your tale! (Confidentially, of course.)

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