Robert M. Pirsig died last week. For anyone who went to college in the mid-70s, he was required reading in a variety of classes and disciplines for his seminal work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There were a handful of books that really stand out from my college era and this was certainly among those at the very top. His New York Times (NYT) obituary described the book as “dense and discursive novel of ideas,” which “became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture”.

Pirsig was a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer when the novel was published in 1974 to critical acclaim and explosive popularity, selling a million copies in its first year and several million more since. I was drawn to it for a variety of reasons, part philosophical, part travelogue, part motorcycle maintenance manual and part father/son spiritual journey. His obituary quoted Todd Gitlin, a sociologist, who said, “that “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in seeking to reconcile humanism with technological progress, had been perfectly timed for a generation weary of the ’60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order.”

Gitlin was later quoted as saying, “There is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and I believe the book was popular because there were a lot of people who wanted a reconciliation — even if they didn’t know what they were looking for,” and “Pirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late ’60s into the real world of adult life.” But Pirsig did not plunge into these questions through drugs or hallucinogens as one of the 60s seminal books did, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. Pirsig focused on reason and ““Zen” argued for its equal availability in the brain-racking rigors of Reason with a capital R.” As Pirsig stated, “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” It was the reason, rationality and logic of motorcycle maintenance that opened Pirsig’s world of philosophy to me.

It is these twin ‘Rs’ that I find so meaningful to compliance. Compliance brings both Reason and Rationality to the corporate world. This month, in my year-long one month podcast series dedicated creating best practices in compliance to operationalizing your compliance program, I am focusing on how Human Resources (HR) can garner both goals for compliance. I have long advocated for a greater role of HR in a compliance program. Indeed, one sign of a mature Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance program is the extent to which HR is involved in implementing a solution. While many practitioners do not immediately consider HR as a key component of a FCPA compliance solution, it is one of the lynchpins in spreading a company’s values and commitment to compliance throughout the employee base. HR can also be used to ‘connect the dots’ in many divergent elements of a FCPA compliance and ethics program.

Even more importantly is the operationalization of compliance into the fabric of the business. One of the key indicia of compliance program effectiveness is how thoroughly each separate corporate discipline incorporates compliance into its everyday job functions. An active and functioning compliance program will literally be alive in each department in an organization.

HR has as many touchpoints as any other corporation function with employees. From interviews to onboarding, through evaluations and performance appraisals, even to the separation process; HR leads many of the corporate touchpoints. Each one of these touchpoints can be used to teach, educate and reinforce the message of doing business ethically and in compliance with laws such as the FCPA, UK Bribery Act or any similar legislation.

Another way to picture it is to visualize these touchpoints as follows:

By using these touchpoints HR can demonstrate the shared commitment requirement found in Prong 2 of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs (Evaluation) as well as provide ongoing communications as laid out in Prong 6. There are few other corporate departments which have so many employee touchpoints as HR. Every compliance practitioner should use HR to operationalize compliance through the variety of touchpoints and expertise available to a compliance professional through a corporate HR department.

Yet, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance speaks to not only maintenance for acute motorcycle mechanical failures but also routine maintenance to avoid longer-term chronic failures and breakdowns. So, it covers all three prongs of a best practices compliance program, to prevent, detect, and, finally, remediate going forward. For just as motorcycle maintenance is based on rationality, so is compliance.

As a key first step, I would suggest that every compliance professional head down to your corporate HR department and have a cup of coffee with your functional equivalent. Find out not only what they do but how they do it and then explore how you can further operationalize your compliance program through these HR-employee touchpoints. You might even take a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance down with you to the meeting and introduce how both reason and rationality can drive a more efficient operationalization of your compliance program.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017