Compensation Incentives in a Best Practices Compliance Program

Thomas Fox
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Compensation IncentivesOne of the areas that many companies have not paid as much attention to in their Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) anti-corruption compliance programs is compensation. However the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have long made clear that they view incentives, rewarding those employees who do business in compliance with their employer’s compliance program, as one of the ways to reinforce the compliance program and the message of compliance. As far back as 2004, the then SEC Director of Enforcement, Stephen M. Cutler, said “[M]ake integrity, ethics and compliance part of the promotion, compensation and evaluation processes as well. For at the end of the day, the most effective way to communicate that “doing the right thing” is a priority, is to reward it.” The FCPA Guidance states the “DOJ and SEC recognize that positive incentives can also drive compliant behavior. These incentives can take many forms such as personnel evaluations and promotions, rewards for improving and developing a company’s compliance pro­gram, and rewards for ethics and compliance leadership.”

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, entitled “The Right Way to Use Compensation, Mark Roberge, Chief Revenue Officer of HubSpot, wrote about his company’s design and redesign of its employee’s compensation system to help drive certain behaviors. The piece’s subtitle indicated how the company fared in this technique as it read, “To shift strategy, change how you pay your team.” Several interesting ideas were presented, which I thought could be applicable for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner when thinking about compensation as a mechanism in a best practices compliance program.

Obviously Roberge and HubSpot were focused on creating and retaining a customer base for a start-up company. However because the company was a start-up, I found many of their lessons to be applicable for the compliance practitioner. As your compliance program matures and your strategy shifts, “it’s critical that the employees who bring in the revenue-the sales force-understand and behave in ways that support the new strategy. The sales compensation system can help ventures achieve that compliance.” The prescription for you as the compliance practitioner is to revise the incentive system to focus your employees on the goals of your compliance program. This may mean that you need to change the incentives as the compliance programs matures; from installing the building blocks of compliance to burning anti-corruption compliance into the DNA of your company.

Roberge wrote that there were three key questions you should ask yourself in modifying your compensation incentive structure. First, is the change simple? Second, is the changed aligned with your company values? Third, is the effective on behavior immediate due to the change?

Simplicity

Your employees should not need “a spreadsheet to calculate their earnings.” This is because if “too many variables are included, they may become confused about which behaviors” you are rewarding. Keep the plan simple and even employee KISS, Keep it simple sir, when designing your program. If you do not do so, your employees might fall back on old behaviors that worked in the past. Roberge notes, “It should be extraordinarily clear which outcomes you are rewarding.”

The simplest way to incentive employees is to create metrics that they readily understand and are achievable in the context of the compliance program that you are trying to implement or enhance. This can start with attending Code of Conduct and compliance program training. Next might be a test to determine how much of that training was retained. It could be follow up, online training. It could mean instances of being a compliance champion in certain areas, whether with your employee base or third party sales force.

Alignment

As the CCO or compliance practitioner, you need to posit the most important compliance goal your entity needs to achieve. From there you should determine how your compensation program can be aligned with that goal. Roberge cautions what the DOJ and SEC both seem to understand, that you should not “underestimate the power of your compensation plan.” You can tweak your compliance communication, be it training, compliance videos, compliance reminders or other forms of compliance messaging but it is incumbent to remember that “if the majority of your company’s revenue is generated by salespeople, properly aligning their compensation plan will have greater impact than anything else.”

The beauty of this alignment prong is that it works with your sales force throughout the entire sales channel. So if your sales channel is employee based then their direct compensation can be used for alignment. However such alignment also works with a third party sales force such as agents, representatives, channel ops partners and even distributors. Here Roberge had another suggestion regarding compensation that I thought had interesting concepts for third parties, the holdback or even clawback. This would come into place at some point in the future for these third parties who might meet certain compliance metrics that you design into your third party management program.

Immediacy

Finally, under immediacy, it is important that such structures be put in place “immediately” but in a way that incentives employees. Roberge believes that “any delay in the good (or bad) behavior and the related financial outcome will decrease the impact of the plan.” As a part of immediacy, I would add there must be sufficient communication with your employee or other third party sales base. Roberge suggested a town hall meeting or other similar event where you can communicate to a large number of people.

Even in the world of employee compensation incentives, there should be transparency. He cautioned that transparency does not mean the design of the incentive system is a “democratic process. It was critical that the salespeople did not confuse transparency and involvement with an invitation to selfishly design the plan around their own needs.” However, he did believe that the employee base “appreciated the openness, even when the changes were not favorable to their individual situations.” Finally, he concluded, “Because of this involvement, when a new plan was rolled out, the sales team would understand why the final structure was chosen.”

So just as Roberge, working with HubSpot as a start-up, learned through this experience “the power of a compensation plan to motivate salespeople not only to sell more but to act in ways that support a start-up’s evolving business model and overall strategy”; you can also use your compensation program as such an incentive. For the compliance practitioner one of the biggest reasons is to first change a company’s culture to make compliance more important but to then burn it into the fabric of your organization. But you must be able to evolve in your thinking and professionalism as a compliance practitioner to recognize the opportunities to change and then adapt your incentive program to make the doing of compliance part of your company’s everyday business process.

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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.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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