This week the Houston Texans unceremoniously cut the franchise’s greatest player in its short history, receiver Andre Johnson. This was after his being hauled into the office of the head coach and being told that he would only need to work half as hard next year. As reported by Jerome Solomon in the Houston Chronicle article entitled “Move inevitable, but team bungles its handling”, Head Coach Bill O’Brien told Johnson that his catch total would drop from the 84 he has averaged in his 12 year career with the Texans down to “around 40 passes next season.” But O’Brien went on to add the team’s certain Hall of Fame receiver “wasn’t likely to be a starter next season, definitely not for all of the games.” So much for playing your best player at his position on a full-time basis, but hey, at least the information was made public.
Now imagine you are a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and have been one of your company’s senior management for the better part of the past 12 years. While you may not have been the most important member of the management team you certainly have helped navigate the company through rough compliance waters. Now imagine the company Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who tells you that although he has no one in mind to replace you (other than a less experienced and a smaller-salaried compliance specialist) your services will only be needed half the time in the coming year. What if this is in response to advice the head of the company did not like? What should the response be?
You can consider the departure from MF Global of its Chief Risk Officer, the financial services equivalent of a CCO. As reported in a New York Times (NYT) article entitled “MF Global’s Risk Officer Said to Lack Authority” Ben Protess and Azam Ahmed reported that the company replaced its Chief Risk Officer, Michael Roseman, after he “repeatedly clashed with Mr. Corzine [the CEO] over the firm’s purchase of European sovereign debt.” He was given a large severance package and left the company. When he left, there was no public reason given. His replacement was brought into the position with reduced authority.
If you are a public company, you may well need to heed the advice of fraud and compliance expert Jonathan Marks, a partner at Crowe Horwath LLP, who advocates that any time a CCO, a key executive, is dismissed it should be an 8K reporting event because the departure may be a signal of a change in the company’s attitude towards compliance or an alleged ethical breach had taken place. A similar view was expressed by Michael W. Peregrine in a NYT article entitled “Another View: MF Global’s Corporate Governance Lesson”, where he wrote that a “compliance officer is the equivalent of a “protected class” for governance purposes, and the sooner leadership gets that, the better.” Particularly in the post Sarbanes-Oxley world, a company’s CCO is a “linchpin in organizational efforts to comply with applicable law.” When a company fires (or asks him/her to resign), it is a significance decision for all involved in corporate governance and should not be solely done at the discretion of the CEO alone.
In its Code of Ethics for Compliance and Ethics Professionals, the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) has postulated Rule 1.4, which reads, “If, in the course of their work, CEPs become aware of any decision by their employing organization which, if implemented, would constitute misconduct, the professional shall: (a) refuse to consent to the decision; (b) escalate the matter, including to the highest governing body, as appropriate; (c) if serious issues remain unresolved after exercising “a” and “b”, consider resignation; and (d) report the decision to public officials when required by law.” As commentary to this rule, the SCCE said, “The duty of a compliance and ethics professional goes beyond a duty to the employing organization, inasmuch as his/her duty to the public and to the profession includes prevention of organizational misconduct. The CEP should exhaust all internal means available to deter his/her employing organization, its employees and agents from engaging in misconduct. The CEP should escalate matters to the highest governing body as appropriate, including whenever: a) directed to do so by that body, e.g., by a board resolution; b) escalation to management has proved ineffective; or c) the CEP believes escalation to management would be futile. CEPs should consider resignation only as a last resort, since CEPs may be the only remaining barrier to misconduct. A letter of resignation should set forth to senior management and the highest governing body of the employing organization in full detail and with complete candor all of the conditions that necessitate his/her action. In complex organizations, the highest governing body may be the highest governing body of a parent corporation.”
What about compensation? The Department of Justice (DOJ) has made clear that it expects a CCO to resign if the company refuses advice and violates the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The former head of the DOJ-FCPA unit Chuck Duross went so far as to compare CCOs and compliance practitioners to the Texans at the Alamo. To be fair to Duross, I think he was focusing more on the line in the sand part of the story, while I took that to mean they were all slaughtered for what they believed in. But whichever interpretation you may choose to put on it, the DOJ clearly expects a CCO to stand up and if a CEO does not like what they say, he or she must resign. This puts CCOs and compliance practitioners in a very difficult position, particularly if there is no exit compensation for doing the right thing by standing up.
I think the next step should be for the DOJ and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to begin to discuss the need for contractual protection of CCOs and other compliance practitioners against retaliation for standing up against corruption and bribery. The standard could simply be one that protects a CCO and other compliance practitioners against termination without cause. Just as the SEC is investigating whether companies are trying to muzzle whistleblowers through post-employment Confidentiality Agreements, I think they should consider whether CCOs and other compliance practitioners need more employment protection. I think the SEC should also consider the proposals of Marks regarding the required 8K or other public reporting of the dismissal or resignation of any CCO. Finally, I would expand on Peregrine’s suggestion and require that a company Board of Directors approve any dismissal of a CCO. With these protections in place, a CCO or compliance practitioner would have the ability to confront management who might take business decisions that violate the FCPA.