The Intersection Where Compliance Meets Ethics

Written by Frank Bucaro

One of the topics that has drawn much response from one of my postings on social media was the confusion about the term, compliance/ethics officer. Compliance is not ethics and ethics is not compliance. They are related but not the same. For example, if you look at practically any compliance/ethics position, it describes legal issues and the position description is usually for someone who is a JD. A compliance officer is, most of the time, an attorney for very practical reasons and rightly so. These are brilliant people in their field. However, your ethics officer is what occupation? Attorney, Philosopher? Theologian? Human Resource Professional? or? And more importantly what is their formal training in ethics?

Compliance and ethics are like intersecting circles. There is a point where they overlap and both need careful and equal consideration. The question is, when they don’t overlap and there is an ethics issue, to whom do your people go for an ethical resolution? It is important to keep in mind that compliance is a reactive reality, in that one reacts to law that one did not have anything to do with its creation.

Ethics, however, is only proactive. It is a personal choice to be or not. Therefore compliance is letter of the law and ethics is spirit of the law. Can a compliance ethics officer do both justice? I doubt it! Please don’t get me wrong here, I have a tremendous respect for the Compliance professionals. They are brilliant people, but ethics is not their formal training.Would you want someone who isn’t a JD or trained compliance professionals, doing compliance in your organization? Of course not! Well how about ethics? Why would you have someone not trained in ethics, deal with ethics? It is time to separate the titles and concepts of a compliance/ethics officer or compliance/ethics training (which is it?).

Here’s another example of what I’m saying. A few weeks ago the county that I live in ,asked me to consider applying for the role of Ethics Advisor for the County Board. I asked them for a job description and qualifications needed for this position. The job  description was all compliance based and the qualifications were either a number of years in county government, a JD, County board experience, and last on the list, a professor of ethics from a university.

I emailed my contact and said that you don’t want an Ethics Advisor, you want a compliance officer, to which I explained the difference in concept and reality and the reply was maybe I was right! A client of mine, who is a compliance/ethics officer(and is a JD) in the pharmaceutical industry shared with me his “take” on the difference.

“Simply stated, ethics is the internal intangible that drives us. It’s the value system, or lack thereof, that guides us when we make decisions in our day to day actions. Compliance is much more clear cut. Compliance is about following the rules, the policies, the regulations that are articulated in laws and internally drafted documents. There are consequences for violating those policies and regulations that can result in discipline up to and including termination. Often, there’s no analysis related to intent. If you violate the rules, there will be consequences. Ethics is more about your personal values. I heard an expert say , either you have ethics or you don’t . Maybe the rules and regs are for those that don’t have guiding principles they live by.

Employees that will do anything to get where they need to go , need a structure in place to stop them from crossing the line. Companies that incorporate a culture of ethical behavior, get employees to follow the rules, not just because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“The challenge for companies here is to help their people understand that one can be compliant and yet be unethical. The law is black and white and there are consequences. What do you do when something unethical happens, but it’s compliant? What your process modus operandi? What are the consequences? In short, compliance, by its very name is a reactive process. To be compliant is to respond to something you have been “taught” to obey, i.e. law.

Ethics can only be a proactive process. To be ethical is to focus on values, character, principles, etc what will give you a foundation to make those tough decisions, before they happen. If companies put as much time, effort and money into ethics training as they do for compliance training, develop proactive, ongoing training in both areas, maybe, just maybe, the way business is conducted, the way people are trained and treated, will take a major step in the ethical direction, which may help people choose to do right, rather than just make them do right.

Expert Biography

Frank C. Bucaro, CSP, CPAE Values Based Leadership Expert Frank C. Bucaro and Associates, Inc. (630) 483.2276.