By Joe Murphy, JD, CCEP, CCEP-I
Over the years I have done substantial amounts of research in the field of compliance and ethics. I have found quite a few people in academia who have offered strong opinions about compliance programs. Many of these are well-reasoned and offer helpful perspectives. But there are also those who purport to tell those of us who do the day-to-day work why we are wrong in what we do, or how we are really only motivated to cover up corporate crimes, or that we need to ignore the management standards in the Sentencing Guidelines and instead follow some other trend.
But here is an odd thing. While there are many in academia who have written and spoken about the field of compliance and ethics, it is often the case that these same academics have not explored the dimensions of the compliance programs at their own academic institutions. Of course, universities are substantial organizations with an extraordinary range of serious compliance issues. For example, a typical large university will be conducting at least some work for the federal government and would be subject to heavy regulation under the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Universities have extensive physical plants that raise environmental and workplace safety issues. They deal with vulnerable students and have associated obligations. They have to deal with Title 9 discrimination issues. They have reporting duties relating to campus crime.
University compliance programs would make excellent laboratories for academics to test out their theories. Yet in all the articles and commentary I have seen from academics, I do not recall that they spent time with their own institution’s compliance program.
So here is a thought. If you are at a university and want to write about this field, do some easy empirical work first. Look up who is your university’s compliance officer. At least take the person out for coffee and find out what they do. (If there is no compliance officer, you might have to talk with the people who handle parts of the compliance effort; you might also pass along to the university hierarchy that they are taking a very risky course without having a senior compliance and ethics officer with real authority and independence.) You can go even deeper and learn more about their difficult work – how much face time can they get with the board of trustees. How does the faculty seek to help them in their difficult tasks (prepare to be surprised, if you think the faculty makes their lives easier)? What do they have to do to conduct investigations? How difficult is it to get faculty to attend mandatory training, such as that covering harassment?
I have always found that on-the-ground work is essential for understanding. When I write about compliance I can picture the faces of those compliance workers going through the hard work involved in helping people to follow the law and act ethically. Before you tell these people they are wasting their time, or not taking the right approach, or that they need to simply rely on culture, spend a day with them and see if your ideas really have a place. You may find additional support for your views, or you may obtain a different perspective. But in all cases, you will have a much better understanding of what we do and why it matters.