Risk Assessments-the Cornerstone of Your Compliance Program, Part II

by Thomas Fox
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7K0A0501Ed. Note-Today, I continue my three-part posts on risk assessments. Today I take a look at some different ideas on how you might go about assessing your risks.

One of the questions that I hear most often is how does one actually perform a risk assessment? Mike Volkov has suggested a couple of different approaches in his article “Practical Suggestions for Conducting Risk Assessments.” In it Volkov differentiates between smaller companies which might use some basic tools such as “personal or telephone interviews of key employees; surveys and questionnaires of employees; and review of historical compliance information such as due diligence files for third parties and mergers and acquisitions, as well as internal audits of key offices” from larger companies. Such larger companies may use these basic techniques but may also include a deeper dive into high risk countries or high risk business areas. If your company’s sales model uses third party representatives, you may also wish to visit with those parties or persons to help evaluate their risks for bribery and corruption that might well be attributed to your company.

Another noted compliance practitioner, William Athanas, in an article entitled “Rethinking FCPA Compliance Strategies in a New Era of Enforcement”, took a different look at risk assessments when he posited that companies assume that FCPA violations follow a “bell-curve distribution, where the majority of employees are responsible for the majority of violations.” However Athanas believed that the distribution pattern more closely follows a “hockey-stick distribution, where a select few…commit virtually all violations.” Athanas suggests assessing those individuals with the opportunity to interact with foreign officials have the greatest chance to commit FCPA violations. Diving down from that group, certain individuals also possess the necessary inclination, whether a personal financial incentive linked to the transaction or the inability to recognize the significant risks attendant to bribery.

To assess these risks, Athanas suggested an initial determination of the touch-points where the operations of manufacturing companies “intersect with foreign officials vested with discretionary authority.” This will lead to an understanding of the individuals who hold these roles within a company. This means that a simple geographic analysis is but a first step in a risk analysis. Thereafter companies should also focus on “those who authorize and record disbursements, as well as those who represent the company in situations where they may be solicited for payments.” The next step is to determine those company employees who may have the incentive “to pay bribes on the Company’s behalf.” This incentive can come from a variety of forms; such as a company compensation plan, which rewards high producers; employees who do not understand the risk they place the company (and themselves) in by engaging in tactics which violate the FCPA; and, finally, those employees who seek to place their individual interests above those of the company.

Athanas concludes by noting that this limited group of employees, or what he terms the “shaft of the hockey-stick”, is where a company should devote the majority of its compliance resources. With a proper risk assessment, a company can then focus its compliance efforts on “intensive training sessions or focused analysis of key financial transactions — on those individuals with the opportunity and potential inclination to violate the statute.” This focus will provide companies the greatest “financial value and practical worth of compliance efforts.”

Lawler suggests that you combine the scores or analysis you obtain from the corruption markers you review; whether it is the DOJ list or those markers under the UK Bribery Act. From there, create a “rudimentary risk-scoring system that ranks the things to review using risk indicators of potential bribery.” This ensures that high-risk exposures are done first and/or given more time. As with all populations of this type, there is likely to be a normal or ‘bell curve’ distribution of risks around the mean. So 10-15% of exposure falls into the relative low-risk category; the vast majority (70-80%) into the moderate-risk category; and the final 10-15% would be high risk.

Earlier this week I wrote a piece about the Desktop Risk Assessment. I will not repeat the entire blog post here but only use some of the areas you could assess as a starting point for discussion. If you do not have the time, resources or support to conduct a worldwide risk assessment annually, you can take a different approach. You might try assessing other areas annually through a more limited focused risk assessment, which a colleague of mine calls the Desktop Risk Assessment. Some of the areas that such a Desktop Risk Assessment could inquire into might be the following:

  • Are resources adequate to sustain a culture of compliance?
  • How are the risks in the C-Suite and the Boardroom being addressed?
  • What are the FCPA risks related to the supply chain?
  • How is risk being examined and due diligence performed at the vendor/agent level? How is such risk being managed?
  • Is the documentation adequate to support the program for regulatory purposes?
  • Is culture, attitude (tone from the top), and knowledge measured? If yes, can we use the information enhance the program?
  • Disciplinary guidelines – Do they exist and has anyone been terminated or disciplined for a violating policy?
  • Communication of information and findings – Are escalation protocols appropriate?
  • What are the opportunities to improve compliance?

There are a variety of materials that you can review from or at a company that can facilitate such a Desktop Risk Assessment. You can review your company’s policies and written guidelines by reviewing anti-corruption compliance policies, guidelines, and procedures to ensure that compliance programs are tailored to address specific risks such as gifts, hospitality and entertainment, travel, political and charitable donations, and promotional activities.

This list is not intended to be a complete list of items, you can pick and choose to form some type of Desktop Risk Assessment but hopefully you can see some of the things areas you can assess and deliver any remedial action which may be warranted. Further, if you aim to perform an annual Desktop Risk Assessment with a full worldwide risk assessment every two years or so, you should be in a good position to keep abreast of compliance issues that may change and need more or greater risk management. And do not forget the that the FCPA Guidance ends its section on risk with, “When assessing a company’s compliance program, DOJ and SEC take into account whether and to what degree a company analyzes and addresses the particular risks it faces.”

A completely different approach was articulated by Leonard Shen, Vice President (VP) and Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) at PayPal, in a presentation to Compliance Week. His approach is not the right approach for every company but for those initiating their compliance journey, or a company considering a significant upgrade due to some systemic issue; this approach may be a more effective approach than the traditional risk assessment where a team of lawyers, CPAs and internal auditors assess a company’s compliance environment.

In a company which is initiating its compliance program, it can be perceived as a sea change of culture. However, Shen indicated that he had used an approach which worked to alleviate those types of concerns which also provided enough information to perform a robust assessment which could be used to form the basis of an effective compliance program. He termed this type of approach as one to “engage and educate.” While the approach had a two word name, it actually had three purposes; (1) to engage the employees in what would form the basis for an enhanced compliance program; (2) to educate the employees generally in compliance and ethical behavior; and (3) through the engagement of employees, to gather information which could be used to form the basis of a risk assessment.

Shen and his compliance team traveled to multiple company locations, across the globe, to meet with as many employees as possible. A large number these meetings were town hall settings, and key employee leaders, key stakeholders and employees identified as high risk, due to interaction with foreign governmental official touch-points, were met with individually or in smaller groups. Shen and his team listened to their compliance concerns and more importantly took their compliance ideas back to the home office.

From this engagement, the team received several thousand-employee suggestions regarding enhancements to the company’s compliance program. After returning to the US, Shen and his team winnowed down this large number to a more manageable number, somewhere in the range of a couple of hundred. These formed the basis of a large core of the enhancements to the existing company compliance program. After the enhanced compliance program was rolled out formal training began. During the training, the team was able to give specific examples of how employee input led to the changes in the enhanced program. This engaged the employees and made them feel like they were a part of, and had a vested interest in, the company’s compliance program. This employee engagement led to employee buy-in.

During the town hall meetings, and the smaller more informal group meetings, Shen and his team were doing more than simply listening, they were also training. However, the training was not on specific compliance provisions; it was more generally on overall ethics and how the employees could use compliance as a business tool. Most ethical standards of a company are not found in an existing compliance program, they are found in the general anti-discrimination guidelines and ethical business practices such anti-competitiveness and use of customer confidential information prohibitions. Often these general concepts can be found in a company’s overall Code of Conduct or similar statement of business ethics; workplace anti-discrimination and anti-harassment guidelines can be found in Human Resource policies and procedures.

Concepts such as anti-competitiveness and use of customer and competitor’s illegally obtained confidential information may be found in anti-trust or other business practice focused guidelines.

Shen and his team’s aim on the education component of “engage and educate” was to have the company employee’s start thinking about doing business the ethical way. It was ethical concept based training designed to be in contrast to a rules based approach, where employees believe they are taught the rules, and then try to see how close they can get to the line of violating the compliance rule without actually stepping over the line. Moreover, by having this general ethical business training, it laid the groundwork for the enhancement of the company’s compliance program and the training that would occur when the enhancement was rolled out.

A third key component of the “engage and educate” program is the risk assessment component. Shen’s approach here was not the traditional control-testing model, where documents are pulled and tested against a standard. Shen and his team listened, listened and listened. They listened to their employees concerns and they listened to the compliance issues they raised. As they were listening they began to ask questions about what was done and why. The questioning was not in an adversarial, interrogation mode but ferreting out the employees concerns while having the employees educate the team on the actual procedures that were used in several areas identified as key high risk areas.

Shen emphasized that this was an assessment and not an audit so no detailed forensic work was needed or used. However, by listening, and gently questioning, Shen and his team were able to garner enough information to create a risk assessment profile which informed and became the basis of their compliance program enhancement. Shen and his team did not identify to the company employees that they were engaged in a formal risk assessment. He believed that in many ways, he and his team were able to garner more useful information with which to inform their compliance program enhancement.

Shen’s “engage and educate” approach worked for his company at that point in time. It may not work for other companies as a traditional risk assessment but it does provide a different model if your company is beginning to create their compliance program, or is looking into a major enhancement.

Tomorrow, I will look at how you might use a risk assessment going forward.

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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