Whether you’ve seen her at the Global Ethics Summit, read her in the pages of Ethisphere Magazine, engaged with her over the World’s Most Ethical Companies, or bumped into her at any number of ethics, compliance, and integrity events over the years, Erica Salmon Byrne is one of those people who seems to be everywhere: always on, always ready, always aware.
Since 2016, she has been one of the foremost figures at Ethisphere, and in January, she took on the role of President, where she will continue to lead from the front of the organization, and most importantly, to serve as the face and voice of Ethisphere.
We spoke with Erica about her professional journey, how ethics shapes her on a fundamental level, and why she thinks she’s got the greatest job in the world.
What is your ethics & compliance origin story? How did you get into this field?
I got interested in field of ethics and compliance before I went to law school. In the 90s, I worked as an in-house paralegal at a company called GTECH, which at time ran 80% of the lottery machines in the world. One of my jobs was to do all background checks needed for us to have those contracts, so I got a lot of exposure to FBI background checks, FCPA-related issues, and thinking through all those corruption pieces.
At that time, there was some very high-profile litigation going on between Guy Snowden, one of the co-founders of GTECH, and Richard Branson, who had gone on a program in the UK and accused Snowden of trying to bribe him to stay out of the running to operate the UK national lottery. After Branson made his accusation, the UK investigated whether GTECH should have been awarded the contract, and Snowden sued Branson for libel in the UK. I got assigned to work on the document production for our counsel in that case. Long story short, Snowden ended up leaving the company over it. And the thing that struck me at the time was just how many good people were impacted by a bad decision made by a single person.
After law school, I migrated into a sub-section of the litigation group at DLA Piper that was focused on internal investigations. Our client was always the company, so it was really specialized. I did 14 internal investigations over the course of four years, and every single time, the thing that struck me most was that my everyday was my client’s worst day. These were good people being fundamentally and horribly impacted by somebody else’s irresponsible choice. When my husband and I decided to move from DC to Denver for personal reasons, and Piper didn’t have an office out there, I realized I wanted to switch to the proactive side. I had been involved in too many conversations with people crying into their gin and tonics on the southbound Amtrak from NY to DC after meetings with prosecutors at the Southern District. And I wanted to try to do something different with that knowledge.
Now, my work is trying to keep people from having to hire the old me. If you think creatively about compliance program design, if you try to reach people with the information they need to make the right choices in the moment, will you prevent every problem? No. Will you prevent a lot of the problems? Yes. You’re going to be able to keep many unnecessary mistakes from happening. And then when there are mistakes, hopefully, you’ve built a culture where people will tell you early. Because the other thing I saw across those investigations was that the base issue was never that bad. It was the cover-up afterward that was the issue.
So, how did this bring you to Ethisphere?
In 2006, I landed at Corpedia, which was the sister company to Ethisphere, and I worked there until we sold the company to the NYSE. From there, I worked with ICE until 2015 and came back to Ethisphere, which had really doubled down on the focus on the Business Ethics Leadership Alliance (BELA) community, which is part of the reason why I’m so excited about the opportunity I have now as President. If you think about Ethisphere as an organization, at its core is a community for people who don’t always have community within their own organizations. Compliance can be lonely work. Recognizing and understanding that reality is at the core of a lot of what we’re doing now, and it’s a big factor in why we have grown so much as a company over the last several years.
How has your role at Ethisphere changed over time?
When I came back to Ethisphere in early 2016, my original remit was to look at what else we could bring to the BELA community, and also to build out the team of folks working with our data, which documents the practices of the World’s Most Ethical Companies and other leaders. And that is what I have spent the last five or so years doing.
A lot of people engage with the Ethisphere team because we so consciously curate what we bring to the BELA community. The BELA team has also grown tremendously over the last several years, and they’re doing a lot of that work. Here, at Ethisphere, we have a series of experts who put eyes on everything before we post it. Everything we bring to the BELA community has the Ethisphere stamp of approval; someone has verified that what we’re sharing really is a good practice. That gives people a level of trust and confidence in us, and that’s reflected in the way in which the BELA community has grown.
The thing I’m most proud of over the last five years is the culture work that we do. If you look at where we were at the end of 2016-2017 from a data set perspective compared to where we are now, the level of insights we can give companies into the micro cultures they have across their organization and what kinds of risks they present to the company is enormous. It is the most rewarding piece of work that we do: help compliance officers make a tangible change in the lived experience of an employee.
Why do you have the greatest job in the world?
I do have the greatest job in the world! (laughs) This is a cliché, but it’s because of the people. And not just the ones I get to work with. The people I interact with are a community of really great people bonded by shared values, and it’s really fun to be around really smart people who are trying to do really good work.
I really believe that good ethics and compliance programs make companies better places to work. There is no competition in compliance. If somebody has figured out how to address an issue in real estate or retail, people are people no matter where there go. You might not be able to use all of that idea in your organization, but you’ll be able to use a piece of it. And that way, we get to keep standing on each other’s shoulders in a way that is incredibly gratifying. That cross-pollination of concepts and good ideas, that’s a really rewarding thing, because at the end of the day, we’re all managing people-created risks. And there just aren’t that many different ways people are going to be people.
Has ethics and compliance gained the critical mass to drive trends, or is it still reacting to trends?
I don’t know I can say confidently that we’re driving trends yet. As a function, ethics and compliance has only been around for 20 years, since Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002. That’s when people got going on this concept of having an effective program in place that teaches employees not to break the rules, what to do when they have questions or concerns, and assisting the company in getting out of trouble in the event that an employee engages in misconduct.
As a space, we are still chasing some of those more established control functions. If you’re a company with a lot of safety risk, you’ll have a lot of robust and integrated safety programs, and that will drive trends instead of chase them. We still have a lot to learn. As a profession, we should look at safety and quality and risk management and pull lessons from that. Because ultimately, we are trying to impact behavior.
The one place where we are leading the charge is around culture. There is a growing recognition that culture is about bringing your whole self to work and being comfortable using your voice. If you look at a lot of the dialogue right now around authenticity, compassion, and transparency in the workplace, the ethics and compliance team is right there in the mix and has a lot to offer.
What bothers you the most about the E&C landscape today?
The people who still see the function as the “department of no.” Part of that is the way that we talk about our work. There’s still a little bit too much of the compliance baggage of “I’m gonna tell you what the rule is, and you’re gonna follow it.” My experience has been that you don’t ever change behavior without explaining to somebody the why. You’ve got to start there. Why does the FCPA exist? Why are there anti-bribery and anti-trust laws? And why do these things matter to us as a company? That’s where I would love to see more compliance officers take off their lawyer hat and put on their employee hat. Because the point of all of this is empowering people to make choices that align with the company’s values and then being there to help them when they make a mistake.
What is an experience that helped shape your ethics outlook?
When I was a young associate, I had the good fortune of doing some work for Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) when he was in private practice. He was consulting for BP, which at the time had a large natural gas processing facility in Papua New Guinea. He was running an advisory board to help BP develop this facility with the greatest amount of environmental safety and respect for the native population as possible. It was an early exposure for me to what is now an ESG analysis.
One of the things the company ended up doing was develop a safety brochure that was a graphic novel without words to try to help the community understand what the facility in their space meant to them from a safety perspective. I watched them develop that with local community input, especially when the local community had its own diverse points of view on how BP was impacting them. So there was this balancing act of trying to make sure these different voices got heard as much as possible.
I wasn’t making any decisions in that circumstance, but the process of watching that get untangled was impactful on me early in my career and informs the various pieces that I think about now. From an ESG perspective, how do you listen to the symphony of stakeholder voices and still come out with something valuable and meaningful? As Sen. Mitchell said to me at the time, “Look, we’re going to disappoint people. The thing we have to figure out to do is how to disappoint people as equitably and as equally as possible.” How do you spread the disappointment across all of the stakeholder groups? Because no one’s going to get everything that they want from that situation. I think that was a valuable piece of advice.
Who is your ethics hero?
Tom O’Neil, who was my primary mentor at DLA Piper. He was a person who fundamentally showed me the human element of all the work we were doing. It’s very easy to forget the people piece of it, but he never did. In all the work that I did with him over the years, our client was always the company, not a person. And Tom was good at making sure we didn’t lose sight of the fact that the work we did really was people-focused.
What’s your favorite thing you do for fun that draws upon or impacts your work at Ethisphere?
I’m an avid gardener. Gardening is my happy place. The process of nurturing something to watch it come back year after year, stronger and stronger, is something I draw on all the time at work. As a manager, as a BELA leader, as a thinker, this idea that we are setting roots, that those roots matter and that we need to make sure to nurture and feed them is a good reminder for me.
What’s something you wished everyone knows about ethics but doesn’t?
My wish for people within the ethics and compliance circle is that they had a voice in their ear that was the average employee. Your people are, hands-down, your best defense against anything going wrong. If you’ve got a robust feedback channel with the people inside of your organization, then you are in really good shape, professionally. That voice is also super-important because it is so easy to assume that everyone knows what we know and as a result, miss a communication opportunity. Too many compliance professionals deliver the message the way they would want to hear it as opposed to the way their employee base needs to hear it. That is a regularly missed opportunity that I would love to see us all move away from. There is only so many times that you can send a message out to employees that shows you have no idea what they actually do before they stop listening. And once they stop listening, it’s really hard to get them back. That’s my wish for people inside the circle.
Outside the circle, I wish that more business leaders understood that their long-term societal license to operate, to use Larry Fink’s language, is not guaranteed. And that they need to look at the compliance function as a strategic partner that can help them maintain that societal license to operate.
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Erica Salmon Byrne is the President of Ethisphere and is a Sponsor of the Ethisphere Equity & Social Justice Initiative. She has responsibility for the organization’s data and services business and works with Ethisphere’s community of clients to assess ethics and compliance programs and promote best practices across industries. Ms. Salmon Byrne also serves as the Chair of the Business Ethics Leadership Alliance (BELA), where she works with the BELA community to advance the dialogue around ethics and governance and to deliver practical guidance to ethics and compliance practitioners around the globe.