Welcome to the August edition of One Month to More Effective Continuous Improvement. Each month in 2017 I am presenting a series of podcasts on one topic which will allow you to create a more effective compliance program. This month I will discuss what techniques to create continuous improvement in your compliance program.

Under Hallmark Nine of Ten Hallmarks of an Effective Compliance Program as articulated in the 2012 FCPA Guidance, it stated, “Finally, a good compliance program should constantly evolve. A company’s business changes over time, as do the environments in which it operates, the nature of its customers, the laws that govern its actions, and the standards of its chapter 5 Guiding Principles of Enforcement industry. In addition, compliance programs that do not just exist on paper but are followed in practice will inevitably uncover compliance weaknesses and require enhancements. Consequently, DOJ and SEC evaluate whether companies regularly review and improve their compliance programs and not allow them to become stale.” This insight was carried forward in the Department of Justice’s 2017 Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs (Evaluation) lists three types of continuous improvement: (1) internal audit, (2) control testing, and (3) evolving updates; each was category further refined with multiple attendant questions.

You should keep track of external and internal events which may cause change to business process, policies and procedures. Some examples are new laws applicable to your business organization and internal events which drive changes within a company, i.e. a company reorganization or major acquisition. This type of review appears to be similar to the DOJ advocacy of ongoing risk assessments. The FCPA Guidance specifies that “a good compliance program should constantly evolve. A company’s business changes over time, as do the environments in which it operates, the nature of its custom­ers, the laws that govern its actions, and the standards of its industry. In addition, effective compliance programs, meaning those that do not simply exist on paper, but are operationalized will inevitably uncover compliance weaknesses and require enhancements. Consequently, DOJ and SEC evaluate whether companies regularly review and improve their compliance programs and not allow them to become stale.” 

Continuous improvement requires that you not only audit but also monitor whether employees are staying with the compliance program. In addition to the language set out in the FCPA Guidance, two of the seven compliance elements in the US Sentencing Guidelines call for companies to monitor, audit, and respond quickly to allegations of misconduct. These three activities are key components enforcement officials look for when determining whether companies maintain adequate oversight of their compliance programs.

The 2012 FCPA Guidance goes on to make clear that each company should assess and manage its risks. It specifically notes that small and medium-size enterprises likely will have different risk profiles and therefore different attendant compliance programs than large multi-national corporations. Moreover, this is something that the DOJ and SEC consider when evaluating a company’s compliance program in any FCPA investigation. This is why a “Check-the-Box” approach is not only disfavored by the DOJ, but, at the end of the day, it is also ineffectual. It is because each compliance program should be tailored to the enterprise’s own specific needs, risks, and challenges.

One tool that is extremely useful in the continuous improvement cycle, yet is often misused or misunderstood, is ongoing monitoring. This can come from the confusion about the differences between monitoring and auditing. Monitoring is a commitment to reviewing and detecting compliance variances in real time and then reacting quickly to remediate them. A primary goal of monitoring is to identify and address gaps in your program on a regular and consistent basis across a wide spectrum of data and information.

Auditing is a more limited review that targets a specific business component, region, or market sector during a particular timeframe to uncover and/or evaluate certain risks, particularly as seen in financial records. However, you should not assume that because your company conducts audits that it is effectively monitoring. A robust program should include separate functions for auditing and monitoring. Although unique in protocol, however, the two functions are related and can operate in tandem. Monitoring activities can sometimes lead to audits. For instance, if you notice a trend of suspicious payments in recent monitoring reports from Indonesia, it may be time to conduct an audit of those operations to further investigate the issue.

Your company should establish a regular monitoring system to spot issues and address them. Effective monitoring means applying a consistent set of protocols, checks, and controls tailored to your company’s risks to detect and remediate compliance problems on an ongoing basis. To address this, your compliance team should be checking in routinely with local finance departments in your foreign offices to ask if they have noticed recent accounting irregularities. Regional directors should be required to keep tabs on potential improper activity in the countries in which they manage. These ongoing efforts demonstrate that your company is serious about compliance.

What should you do with this information? I would suggest that you have a strategic plan in place ready to implement your findings of continuous improvement, by using the following:

  • Review the Goals of the Strategic Plan. This requires that you arrange a time for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and team to review the goals of the Strategic Plan, which the CCO should lead to determine how this goal in the Plan measures up to its implementation in your company.
  • Design an Execution Plan. The “Keep it Simple Sir” or KISS method is the best to move forward. This would suggest that for each compliance goal, there should be a simple and straight forward plan to ensure that the goal in question is being addressed.
  • Put Accountabilities in Place. In any plan of execution, there must be accountabilities attached to them. This requires the CCO or other senior compliance department representative to put these in place and then mandate a report requirement on how the task assigned is being achieved.
  • Schedule the Next Review of the Plan. There should be a regular review of the process. It allows any problems which may arise to be detected and corrected more quickly than if meetings are held at a less frequent basis.

It is a function of the CCO to reinforce the vision and goals of the compliance function, where assessment and updating are critical to an ongoing best practices compliance program. If you follow this protocol, you will put a mechanism in place to demonstrate your company’s commitment to compliance by following through on intentions as set forth in your strategic plan.

Continuous improvement through continuous monitoring or other techniques will help keep your compliance program abreast of any changes in your business model’s compliance risks and allow growth based upon new and updated best practices specified by regulators. A compliance program is in many ways a continuously evolving organism, just as your company is. You need to build in a way to keep pace with both market and regulatory changes to have a truly effective anti-corruption compliance program. The 2012 FCPA Guidance makes clear the “DOJ and SEC will give meaningful credit to thoughtful efforts to create a sustainable compliance program if a problem is later discovered. Similarly, undertaking proactive evaluations before a problem strikes can lower the applicable penalty range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Although the nature and the frequency of proactive evaluations may vary depending on the size and complexity of an organization, the idea behind such efforts is the same: continuous improve­ment and sustainability.” 

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Your compliance program should be continually evolving.
  2. Monitoring and auditing are different, yet complimentary tools for continuous improvement.
  3. DOJ and SEC will give meaningful credit to thoughtful efforts to create a sustainable compliance program if a problem is later discovered.

 

For more information on how an independent monitor can help improve your company’s ethics and compliance program, visit this month’s sponsor Affiliated Monitors at www.affiliatedmonitors.com.

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