Ed. Note-today we begin a two-part series from the Two Tough Cookies about some of the toughest choices a compliance practitioner may face. As important as this message is for the compliance practitioner, I hope that this series will be read by senior management as well….
Oh, how’d I’d LOVE to make her suffer. I am consumed by it… really consumed by it. I have never in my life felt so “needing” revenge, and it scares the heck out of me. It’s twisted my usual good humor into a never-ending pity party, and I want to feel whole again, gosh darn it! From that woman’s singular act of self-preservation, I knew the fear of want. I knew first-hand the anguish and despair, and how quickly those sentiments evolved into red-rimmed fury. The sheer malevolence of her calm, detached demeanor as she asked me to hand over my badge revealed the underbelly of my chosen profession as an integrity professional – the constant battle against the dark side of humanity. Here I was, the victim instead of the advocate, feeling the blood drain from my face while she calmly called security to escort me out of the building like a common criminal, all the while inured to the suffering she would bring upon me, my family, and more importantly, the other team members in the compliance function.
This Tale from our Crypt highlights the very real risk of being a “team player” whatever the consequences, and the pitfalls of choosing the path less traveled for the sake of Integrity. I was just ushered out of my job by my boss, who was so lacking in experience she’d openly admit to anyone who listened “I have no clue what I’m doing” and then laugh as though it was something to take lightly. Instead of instilling confidence, she was singlehandedly making a laughingstock out of the entire team. The echoes in the halls as I made my final trip through that revolving door were “they just let go of the wrong person….” In her eagerness to get rid of me, she gave me no severance, even though there admittedly was no misconduct. She gave me nothing to lose but my dignity, but that had disappeared a long time ago, as I suffered her daily bullying and belittling comments in front of my team members, stunned into silence by her abject disregard for my experience.
I spent the last two decades running compliance programs, won local and national awards, and regulatory approval for my programs. I am darn good at what I do. I have earned the right to be confident in my field, having seen, and done it all, with a great measure of success. I have had my moments of insecurity – chilling moments of doubt, born on the wings of fleeting glimpses of the dark underbelly of corporate America, while over-eager executives trampled over lesser beings while they competitively climbed to the top, dealing with the inevitable fallout as gatekeeper to the company’s hotline. My repertoire of workplace investigations run the gambit from disparagement, discrimination, harassment, rape, poor management, bomb threats, workplace violence, extramarital affairs (and their illegitimate progeny), embezzlement, theft, drug dealing, child pornography, prostitution, bribes, corruption, plant explosions, accidental death and dismemberment, suicide – the list goes on.
The profession of Integrity & Compliance is littered with individuals who suffer insularity gladly, compelled to resist lemming-like congeniality, always watching, weighing-in, bracing ourselves against the tide, distanced from the malice and ill will that is the hallmark of competitive corporate America. We are a rare breed, delicately balancing professional intimacy with objectivity, keeping even our closest workplace “friends” at arms’ length, humbled by the very good chance that these friends might very well be victims of management override at some point in your career, and that you will have the difficult task of telling them their time is up. When things turn for the worse, we often feel powerless, uncertain who can be taken in confidence to help you sleuth through the “who dunnits” that are part and parcel of hotline investigations. You find yourself hoping against hope that the Human Resources partners you rely upon would get it right, would take the high road, and offer resistance to management when the fault lay at management’s door. Mostly, they do, but sometimes, not. It was those times when HR didn’t offer resistance, didn’t take the unpopular stand, that will stay with me forever, scarring my tender soul, leaving an open, festering wound that will never harden with cynicism, leaving me hopelessly optimistic that what I do for a living, but more importantly, how I go about doing it, has meaning, makes a difference, makes things better for someone, anyone…. And that festering wound had just been ripped wide open by this person who had yet to understand how important her job was to others.
I had been “downsized” out of two organizations already during the recent economic recession, and had intentionally stepped back to get out of the hot seat, not wanting to suffer yet another upheaval in my career. I kept reminding myself of the conversation I had had with my doctor the year prior, when he told me that eventually I was going to have to choose between my heavy international travel schedule and my desire to shed some pounds for health reasons. So I sought out a more limited role with little to no travel, and just spent the last year of my life, swallowing my pride, while my emotional well-being was in rapid decline thanks to this person’s belittling behaviors towards me in front of others. I was unnerved as no good deed I could possibly do went unpunished, one way or another. I put every ounce of effort I could muster into making it work, but I never thought I’d be subject to the hostility that oozed out of this person on a daily basis. Her venom towards me was wearing down my defenses – my civility and professionalism were wearing thin.
I inwardly cringed each time she stumbled her way through a meeting, shuddered at every misspelled word, every grammatical error she published in the company newsletter. I kept my mouth shut, I really did, until I was asked by the CCO to rate her performance as part of a 360? review, and I was honest in my assessment, laying out first her high level of skills in some areas, but objectively critical of her shortcomings as well. The CCO confided I was not the first to observe her shortcomings that I so carefully articulated, and assured me that management was aware of the issues, and action would be taken. I patiently waited months for positive change to occur within the function. I honestly believed it was only a matter of time when things would change, hopefully for the better. When the CCO was promoted, his replacement (an internal hire) was left to handle the issue.
When the new CCO advised me that he was going to do nothing for the first ninety days, I quickly realized that the best outcome for me would be to either move my role out of the compliance organization, or find another job. The company actively promoted from within, so I started to look for opportunities elsewhere where I could shine. I also worked closely with my company-appointed mentor to develop the case for moving my particular role into the business, where I felt it would be more effective. When my boss realized my year anniversary was only a week away, freeing me up for transfer within the company without her permission, she decided to have a “counseling” session with me. Favoring candor over deception, I let her know that I was considering another opportunity within the company that I was qualified for. I also let her know that I was mulling over perhaps exploring the option of moving my role over to the business side, to be more effective and secure that all-important “seat at the table” when critical business decisions were being made. Her reply was, “Yes, I think you’d be good in the business. I have been hearing good things about you from the business partners you work with.”
My mistake? I had no idea how vindictive she was. After all, this was the home of Integrity & Compliance, the “speak up, speak out” department, the “no retaliation” champions!!! Instead of engaging in a productive dialogue to determine what would be best for the company, she then took it upon herself to “counsel” me about speaking with anyone about any concerns I had with her or the compliance function. Her exact words were “you are not to speak with anyone.” A seasoned integrity and compliance pro knows what those words mean. All my senses on high alert, I knew immediately that I was “at risk” for disclosing my desire to be considered for another role in the company. Confiding in one of my colleagues in the department about the discussion with our boss, she let me know that she, too, had been counseled not to speak up about the problems she was having working in that ‘team’ environment, as had another team member who had confided in her. I was not alone, and our “team” was facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions – the hotline, and every other door for expressing concerns, were slamming shut in our faces. We could “go with the flow” and keep our mouths shut as we had been instructed, or stand out, speak up. I offered to speak up on behalf of the team to the new CCO, and they readily accepted.
I scheduled the meeting, and opened it with the statement that the team wished for me to speak with him on their behalf about a concern we were facing in the department. I let the CCO know I felt I was “at risk” for speaking up, but the matter was too important to leave unspoken, as the entire team’s morale was in a downward spiral. I then told him that our boss had issued a gag order against us, which we believed was a violation of the Code of Conduct. The CCO reiterated that he wasn’t going to do anything for at least 90 days. The following week, I was terminated with the excuse that I was “unable to work in the compliance function.” Huh?!? I still don’t know what that means…
In Part 2 tomorrow, the Tough Cookie tells us what happened next and the (sometimes) price of moral courage. Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel
Who are the Two Tough Cookies?
Tough Cookie 1 has spent the more than half of her 20+ legal career working in the Integrity and Compliance field, and has been the architect of award-winning and effective ethics and compliance programs at both publicly traded and privately held companies. Tough Cookie 2 is a Certified Internal Auditor and CPA who has faced ethical and compliance challenges in a variety of industries and geographies and recently led a global internal audit team. Their series “Tales from the Crypt: Tough Choices for Tough Cookies” are drawn largely from real life experiences on the front line of working in Integrity & Compliance, and personal details have been scrubbed to protect, well, you know, just about everyone…