I think it’s time we eliminate the entire concept of compliance—because, really, what’s the point of it?
There will always be senior leaders who turn a deaf ear to the sound advice of their compliance officers. There will always be multibillion-dollar companies that view bribery as a lucrative means of doing business, not merely a cost of doing business. There will always be those in government who indirectly abet misconduct by continuing to issue slap-on-the wrist settlements to firms whose senior leaders often boldly and stubbornly refuse to learn from mistakes of the past.
The latest case-in-point: Deutsche Bank. Plagued by scandals over the last several years, the bank has made headlines, once again, this time over reports that its Germany-based global reputational-risk committee approved a $72 million Silicon Valley real-estate deal with a Russian businessman, despite objections made by its U.S. reputational-risk committee, the Wall Street Journal reported.
What’s notable here is that the bank’s global reputational-risk committee approved the deal at a time when the bank faces investigations by both Congress and the Department of Justice over its lax AML compliance controls and its current relationships with Russian companies and oligarchs. In this instance, the bank said the deal did not violate any money-laundering or sanctions laws, citing only internal disagreement about reputational considerations.
Poor judgment aside, Deutsche Bank is not the only financial services firm to have ignored sound internal advice. JPMorgan Chase’s compliance department faced a similar issue when it recommended cutting ties with child-sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein for being a problematic, high-risk client. Bank executives ultimately ignored that advice until years later.
In a third example, a Swiss Bank ignored recommendations made by its compliance officer to put controls in place to reduce the risk of helping bank clients evade U.S. taxes. Ultimately, the bank made no formal policy changes until two years later, when a grand jury indicted a Swiss asset manager for his role in the tax evasion scheme.
So, why would any company in any industry continue to ignore the sound advice of their risk and compliance teams? It’s an obvious question with an equally obvious answer: money. Ultra-wealthy, well-connected clients breed business.
This brings me back to my original point: It’s time to eliminate the entire concept of compliance. Telling any person that they must “comply” with some rule, law, regulation, or an enforcement agency’s settlement terms begets nothing but an eye-rolling, check-the-box mentality.
The mere term “compliance” pays no heed to moral duty, obligation, or values. Thus, to senior leaders with no moral compass, the question becomes, “What can we legally get away with?” rather than “What should we ethically do?”
Eliminating the term “compliance” out of a company’s vocabulary doesn’t mean eliminating the compliance profession. To the contrary, it gives it more purpose, shifting the conversation away from toeing the line of legal boundaries and, instead, focusing on—in the words of the Business Roundtable—the true purpose of a corporation.