BRUSSELS—The 2014 Compliance Week Europe conference took place last week, and yet again it was an outstanding event that left me convinced the compliance profession has taken firm root here. A few random observations while they are fresh in my memory…
Europeans don’t care about compliance? Baloney. We had more than 150 attendees from 22 countries, including many from “peripheral Europe”—Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Romania, Russia, and the like—where people supposedly don’t care about corporate compliance and ethics. Nothing could be further from the truth. They do care, deeply. We had more attendees this year than 2013, from more countries and more companies, even as the European economy continues to sputter and geopolitical tensions have left everyone anxious about what the future holds.
Still, a genuine excitement permeated the two days of Compliance Week Europe, as compliance professionals met and talked and realized they were not alone. They were not solitary executives on a fool’s errand to placate regulators in some far off city like Washington or New York. They were executives charged with helping their businesses conduct themselves better, in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons—some mundane, some truly important. Regardless, there was a community of support at Compliance Week Europe, and we were honored to provide it.
Privacy concerns everywhere. Our agenda had multiple sessions dedicated to privacy issues, such as how compliance and privacy officers can work well together, and a keynote address from one of the top officials at CNIL, the data protection authority in France. You would expect privacy to be discussed in those places. What surprised me was how often privacy concerns surfaced in other sessions—about whistleblower hotlines, anti-retaliation programs, investigations, forensic data analysis, employee training. Regardless of the topic, in Europe, privacy somehow intersects with it.
The drivers behind that sensitivity to privacy have been dissected many times, and they get to those core differences between the United States and Europe. Europeans truly are scarred by the anonymous reporting on fellow citizens that happened during World War II, often with dire consequences for the person reported on. Europeans do have a history of strong labor unions that won enormous protections for workers. Combined, that leaves a culture that prizes privacy from one end of Europe to the other.
From here on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Americans can grasp that concept. But to hear Europeans talk about privacy concerns all the time—much more often than we do here in the United States—emphasizes the point far more deeply. You cannot build any effective compliance program here unless you think about privacy in every decision you make.
Succeeding at the future of compliance. The best insight I heard at the Compliance Week Europe conference came from Sally March, our closing keynote speaker. March has run compliance programs in both North America and Europe, consulted with global businesses on compliance matters for years, and encountered pretty much every type of problem a compliance officer might face. I asked her to talk about how compliance officers can do their jobs when so many forces—economic, political, social—seem to oppose them these days.
Her argument: that effective compliance isn’t about “assembling the building blocks of a compliance program” any more. It is about influencing behavior to achieve better outcomes, which requires a considerably different set of skills than compliance officers might have had in the last 10 years.
She’s right, of course. Think about it: Today, assembling the building blocks of a program (the hotline, the training, the reporting system, the ethics survey) is a well-trodden path, and relatively straightforward. That path isn’t necessarily cheap or easy, but any good compliance officer knows the basic steps to take. What’s more, plenty of companies have already done those things—and still, we see instances of misconduct over and over again.
The truly successful compliance officer must now convince employees, from the boardroom table to the shoproom floor, that using the compliance program is a good thing; that acting ethically is worthwhile even when you’re tempted to close a big sale, to goof off, to not care.
How can you do that? We found no easy answer at Compliance Week Europe to that question. I expect we’ll keep looking—in Europe, the United States, and everywhere else—for years to come.