When Compliance & Ethics Collide

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By Courtney Hogwood, Esq., CCEP
President of Cavalry Compliance Group, LLC.

We’re going to play a little game today folks, one that’s supposed to show what a day in the life of a compliance officer might look like. For this demonstration, let’s assume that you are the newest Chief Compliance Officer for the ABC Corporation. You’re freshly certified as a Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional and this is your first major leadership position. You’ve been at ABC Corp for about a year now, and you’ve done (in your mind), a great job of setting an example to your fellow coworkers about what you expect from them in terms of compliance and ethics. The attendance at your monthly “Lunch -n- Learn” events has tripled since your initial meeting, and you just received a glowing annual review from the company President. You madam/sir, are ON FIRE.

Then, with what feels like absolutely no warning, you hear that there’s been a change to a set of federal regulations. Let’s assume, that when it comes to healthcare, the President has just changed the way that health insurance is offered to you, and other employees like you, around the United States. Per the latest Executive Order, your corporation can now state that they have a religious and/or moral conviction, and refuse to provide coverage for specific medications. Your company President comes to you and wants to know how to ensure compliance with these new regulations, because they’d like to stop offering these products on the company health insurance plan. The President states that you were the first one that they’ve talked to about this, because you’ve done such a stellar job in other areas of compliance and ethics, that you should clearly be the one to help with the paperwork and draft messages to the entire company on these changes.

Million dollar question time: What do you do?

As CCO, you have an obligation to do what’s in the best interest of the company, while still making sure that the company behaves in an ethical manner. But what happens what those corporate ethics go against your own? What happens when something that the company wants to do is perfectly legal, and they want to make sure that every action they take is compliant with these new regs, but you personally have an issue with the company stance? Cue the dramatic music and the hand-wringing.

Our role as Compliance Officers isn’t to tell the company what to do, or to tell the company what we personally believe on a subject. But shouldn’t we use our personal ethics to help guide us in these types of situations? What happens when our personal ethics aren’t in line with our company’s ethics? Normally this question is easily answered when the company’s ethics are questionable, but what if they’re squarely within their “corporate rights”, and in line with current legal obligations? For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that simply quitting and getting another job isn’t an option at the moment, so you need to decide how to handle this situation HERE and NOW. Is there a way to solve this ethical dilemma?

I’d like to suggest that there is a way to a presentation to the President that is both tactful and professional, and allows you to satisfy your corporate obligation while allowing to sleep at night. How? Make a strong case for BOTH sides of the coin. Why would you do this? Because then you will know that you did everything you could within the bounds of your position, that you fought for all available options, that you fought for the right of the company but you also fought for the rights of similarly situated employees. You were able to look at BOTH the best interests of your corporation AND the best interests of the people that you share the break room with every day. Behaving ethically doesn’t always mean ultimatums, it doesn’t always mean that there’s a black and white, you’re right and I’m wrong.  Sometimes it means that you have the courage to see things from all angles, and try to build a solution that allows you to rest easy when you get home from a day at battle. That’s when you know you’ve done your job to the best of your ability.

Now, this post is in no way in support of, or against, any of the recent current events. Instead, it’s meant to jog your brains into learning to think critically, but also objectively. It’s meant to show you that compliance and ethics, even when they seem to be at odds with each other, don’t have to be. You can still be a good (and ethical!) compliance officer, even in the face of adversity. This is why companies, especially in today’s world, need strong compliance officers, to be the calm in the sea of chaos, to walk the line between business and law, to give voice to reasonable alternatives and options, and to show corporate America that there is no one right answer, but a set of choices to be made every day.

What do you think? How would you handle the situation?

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Hello, Pot Stirrer! 🙂 (There aren’t enough of us in the world.) When I finished reading your post, I took another look at who you are and at first read “Calvary” instead of “Cavalry.” Big difference. 😮 Great food for thought. Odds are, though, that if you’re CCO of a company that’s in a position to “state that they have a religious and/or moral conviction” about coverage for specific medications, you will be aligned with that conviction. True, most of us can’t up and quit our jobs when we disagree with the direction our employer is going. I hope that most of us have the opportunity to work with employers whose values are similar to our own–or whose values we are willing to shape (aside from a religiously based employer where you know what you’re getting in to).

    • Yes that’s me, trouble ?

      I don’t know that I’d agree that a company that chooses to use the moral convictions argument would only employ those individuals that agree with that stance, frankly I think it’s a very large loophole that some companies may take advantage of for the health insurance savings as opposed to real beliefs. So this article is designed for those compliance officers who never anticipated being in that situation, but may have suddenly found themselves trapped in a personal dilemma. Compliance is hard in general, changes in regulations just force us as officers to be more creative in how we do our jobs. Thanks for reading!

    • Hi there, no it’s really not. It’s meant to utilize a recent example of a controversy that has both business and personal ethics dilemmas. As compliance officers, there are times when these types of issues come up, so I’m making the argument that being a compliance officer doesn’t mean you leave your personal values at the door, nor does it mean that you must support everything that your boss tells you to do. My argument is that our job is to provide our employer options on how to be compliant in whatever way the business/BOD determines, because the world isn’t simple black and white.

  2. Thanks Courtney Hogwood for your article!

    Indeed. I do agree that behaving ethically doesn’t always mean ultimatums, it doesn’t always mean that there’s a black and white, you’re right and I’m wrong. Sometimes it means that you have the courage to see things from all angles, and try to build a solution that allows you to rest easy when you get home from a day at battle. That’s when you know you’ve done your job to the best of your ability.

  3. Nice write up! Chances are you might not find an employer whose moral ethics align with yours. This helps when we find ourselves in such a situation.

    • This is very true! Not to mention, sometimes corporate views change over time so the company that you started working for 10 years ago may not have the same values and goals today.

  4. It depends. Has the company indicated its moral or religious objection during the period they were required to cover the offending drugs/services? Or did this decision come out of the blue and is in fact a way to reduce costs and cover the change with a moral/religious objection? If there is a history of objection, then I agree – make the case for both. If there is no history, then I believe the choice is not justified because it’s legal. The right thing to do is make the case for coverage but perhaps in a way that can achieve both coverage and cost reduction.

    • Hi Greg,

      Interestingly, I would have suggested the opposite. If you knew beforehand that there had been multiple objections over time and this has been a long time corporate stance then I’d say to argue for compliance but yes, work with Operations and Finance to see if there are other cost saving options available. Part of our jobs as Compliance Officers is also to play the PR person, what are the optics of this? How will it affect how our employees view the company? Or the public?

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