Richard Bistrong,  Anti-Bribery Consultant & Speaker

“This post originally appeared in the SCCE Compliance and Ethics Blog and is reposted with the permission of the SCCE.”

Looking at my twitter stream over the weekend I saw Roy Snell’s tweet “If people cheat simply because of performance goals why do some people with performance goals refuse to cheat?” followed by #cheatingisachoice

He’s right, cheating is a choice, and we live in a world where, as Adam Turteltaub recently shared “goals and incentives are two cornerstones of business.” Indeed, performance based compensation, whether you are in sales, production or management, is a proven method of success, and a steady source of motivation for people to meet their business objectives. As Roy recently shared in a podcast with Tom Fox, “saying hit your goals doesn’t mean break the law,” and we don’t need “a war on business objectives.”

But when we look at Volkswagen, where fuel efficiency targets went ‘astray,’ and Wells-Fargo, where cross-selling accounts ‘went wild,’ is it time for a re-evaluation of how we look at goals, as sort of an incentive mine sweep? And should we also reassess how compliance might need a greater voice in how business gets done?

While the legal and compliance teams of these (and other) corporations might be organizing their binders to demonstrate to the regulators how the wrongdoers were acting outside their program, does that mean those same programs were understood by front-line personnel?  Or even if they were understood, were they taken seriously? Were people left to make compliance decisions ‘on the fly’ as to “what does management really want, targets or compliance” because from where they were working, those seemed to be pointing in different directions.

Yes, cheating is a choice, and there have been recent stories about Wells-Fargo employees who left the company due to the cross-selling targets. That’s a great example of how people who have ethics in their DNA would rather register their displeasure with their feet, as opposed to working in an environment where they were not ethically comfortable.

But what about those in the middle, who might struggle with objectives, goals and targets in the context of ethics and compliance, particularly those who work in environments where lucrative business opportunities and risk are intertwined. Some might reflect, “rules are rules, and goals are goals,” so what’s the problem? But is it that simple, and should everyone now shoulder additional responsibility in the context of this un-ending news stream of corporate bad-behavior?

From my perspective, front-line employees need to be empowered to speak up to compliance and their managers when they see business objectives as running counter to ethics and compliance, and they need to speak up early in the planning process. Saying you didn’t meet a target or make a sale, because you couldn’t bribe (or otherwise break the law) is probably the last bad excuse of an underperforming sales person. But targets don’t happen overnight, and there is plenty of time in the planning process to address issues where risk is not properly addressed and baked into incentive programs.

But compliance has a responsibility as well. They need to be the voice of how business gets done in the goal setting process, whether formally or informally. When incentive plans speak to a much different objective than ethical and sustainable business, it’s time to hit the compliance “pause” button and re-align. That’s part of being a visible compliance officer or manager, and having a seat at those business strategy tables.

But that’s me. What say you?

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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