FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

November 21, 2014

The Strategic Use of Compliance

StrategyWhat is your company’s compliance strategy? By this I do not mean what is your company doing to put in a place a best practices anti-corruption compliance program that meets the requirement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or UK Bribery Act. My inquiry goes both further and deeper. Has your company moved beyond the view that compliance with the FCPA is simply enough by incorporating compliance into your business strategy to secure a competitive advantage going forward? I thought about this issue when I read a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, entitled “Finding the Right Corporate Legal Strategy”, by Robert C. Bird and David Orozco. While the authors posed the questions from the legal perspective, I found their insights equally valid from the compliance perspective.

While I am fairly certain that Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) and compliance practitioners understand the need for the integration of compliance into the day-to-day business operations of a company, many business types still view compliance “as a constraint on managerial decisions, primarily perceiving” compliance as simply a cost. The authors believe that the more enlightened approach is for companies to use functions such as compliance “in order to secure long-term competitive advantage.” To do so the authors detailed five different legal strategies, which they call pathways, that companies might use that I will translate into compliance strategies. They are in ascending order of importance: (1) avoidance; (2) compliance; (3) prevention; (4) value and (5) transformation. The right strategy for your company will depend on a variety of factors such as maturity of your compliance function, commitment by senior management to compliance, your business model and the compliance function’s ability to collaborate with business managers.


This is the idiot response where a company either disregards anti-corruption laws such as the FCPA or UK Bribery Act or engages in willful blindness. Unfortunately, there are many major US and foreign corporations that have come to grief under the FCPA because they did not take some of the most basic steps to comply with these laws. It is largely because senior management believes that compliance provides “little concrete value, so they make no effort to” even acquiring knowledge in the area. Worse yet are companies who gain a modicum of knowledge about such anti-corruption laws “only so that they can circumvent it to achieve a desired objective.” The authors note that while “An avoidance strategy can sometimes be effective…it can also lead to disaster.” This lead to the compliance function and the CCO only being called in an emergency, after the conduct has occurred so that compliance is always in a reactionary mode.


This pathway means complying with laws, not the compliance function itself. Under this pathway, “companies recognize that the law is an unwelcome but mandatory constraint on their activities.” So while following this strategy would allow a company to have subject matter expert (SME) practitioners in the field of compliance, it would exist only “so the business could operate within its legal bounds.” Under this pathway, companies still view compliance as a cost to be minimized. Moreover, anti-corruption laws such as the FCPA or UK Bribery Act are “viewed as primarily inflexible—externally imposed rules that cannot be changed or adapted to suit a particular corporate strategy.” This means that business managers will simply not understand that compliance can be used to further business goals. It also leads most business unit folks to believe that compliance is the Land of No and the CCO is in reality ‘Dr. No’ who is there “primarily as a watchdog that polices corporate conduct for illegal activity.”


Under the prevention pathway, senior management acknowledges that anti-corruption laws can be used as competitive advantage “to further well-defined business roles.” This means that the compliance is proactive rather than reactive. Senior managers understand how the law relates to their business areas “and they appreciate how it can be used to minimize particular business risks.” The compliance function “seeks partnerships with managers to help them achieve their risk-management goals.” This pathway has the added benefit that allows compliance practitioners to recognize the importance of measuring and quantifying compliance issues and data “as a part of a broader effort to support a business oriented strategy.” It also means that the compliance function is available to the business unit when the competitive landscape is “strategically assessed” by the business unit. This is more than simply having a seat at the table; it is being a part of and contributing to the commercial strategy.


Companies operating in this pathway use compliance to “create tangible and identifiable value.” But to do so requires a true corporate commitment because business unit managers will need to have a strong understanding of anti-corruption compliance and how it can be tailored to generate value for the company. The CCO, and indeed the entire compliance function, must see itself “as a key stakeholder in helping the company to increase its return on investment” and should see itself in helping to create value for the company. Usually this comes about in two ways. The first is by using compliance to lower costs of doing business, particularly through third parties. Here you can think of reducing the number of vendors who perform the same services or provide the same products to you by appropriate management of your third party compliance program. The second way is by using compliance to increase revenues.


In this final pathway, a company will incorporate compliance directly into its business model. While the authors note that few companies have been able to move this far in the legal arena, those who have done so possess a rare and valuable “capability that can provide a competitive advantage that is difficult for a business rival to imitate.” One of the keys to making this transformation is that not only is compliance integrated within “the company’s various value-chain activities; it is also linked with the value chains of important external partners as part of the larger business ecosystem.” This pathway is only available to companies with the most mature compliance function and most usually when compliance is combined with “the business model and core competencies of the company.”

Clearly there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to compliance strategies. However if your compliance program has maturity and senior management can operate with their eyes open, they will see that while the first three strategies focus on managing risk, the final two are targeted towards generating business opportunities or least have compliance as a part of the team doing so. As compliance practitioners move into the CCO 2.0 role that I have advocated, these pathways can provide you with a tangible starting point to educate senior management on what compliance can bring to the (business) table.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

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