This article was republished with permission from Tom Fox’s FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog.
In 1803, the fate of the United States changed in ways that could never have been contemplated, when the French Minister Talleyrand offered to sell France’s entire Louisiana Territory in North America to stunned American negotiators Robert Livingston and James Monroe, who were simply trying to purchase the city of New Orleans from the French Emperor Napoleon. Quickly recognizing that this was an offer of potentially immense significance for the U.S., Livingston and Monroe began to negotiate on France’s proposed cost for the entire territory. Several weeks later, on April 30, 1803, the American emissaries signed a treaty with France for a purchase of the vast territory for $11,250,000. With the sale of the Louisiana Territory, Napoleon abandoned his dreams of a North American empire, but he also achieved a goal that he thought more important. “The sale [of Louisiana] assures forever the power of the United States,” Napoleon later wrote, “and I have given England a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride.”
There are many great resources out there for the compliance practitioner. One of them I have come to really appreciate and look forward to receiving is the Red Flag Group’s bimonthly Compliance Insider magazine, available both in print and online versions. In the most recent version there were several articles that I found very useful for the compliance practitioner, but the one I want to focus on today is the compliance focus group. This provides a forum for employees to raise compliance issues and concerns in “an informal environment, in small groups or in one-on-one sessions. They can be done as stand-alone or as breakout sessions from larger meetings, conferences or similar events where multiple parties get together.” The article provided 10 things you should consider before you hold your compliance focus groups.
- Select Your Countries and Regions Carefully. You need to reflect on selecting those areas that have “compliance issues, have been the subject of investigations or are higher risk.” Contrast that selection with one or more regions that have achieved compliance performance so that you can clearly articulate the difference. Most importantly, pick the regions that need the most support and “have the most business at risk if there is a compliance issue. You will also know from your own business those areas, business units or regions where there is more ‘noise’ around compliance.”
- Plan Your Locations, Times and Attendees. Think about your logistics, both higher-level details such as travel times and lower-level considerations such as seating. As you will usually desire to have three to four sessions per day up to 90 minutes in length, you will need to make sure people have enough time to get there and register. But also think about seating, as you want to make things as informal as possible. This means a conference table or a large U-shape arrangement and not classroom or lecture room seating.
- Have Separate Management Sessions. It is important that you make attendees feel that they can give open and honest thoughts about the company and its compliance regime. This means you cannot have senior management in sessions for middle management and lower management and employees.
- Draft an Agenda and a Short Presentation. The author believes that many times participants will need a stimulus of some sort to get things going. He advises, “a good idea is to build a brief agenda before the meeting, even if it is fairly flexible – many senior employees will demand an agenda before accepting a meeting.” Also, prepare a brief PowerPoint presentation for the session designed to explain the purpose and outcomes of the session, and keep it to five or six slides which act as placeholders for discussion topics.
- Think About Some Probing Questions In Advance. Here are some of the suggested questions that you should consider asking the group:
- Do people understand what compliance is? What does it mean to you in your daily business dealings?
- What do people think of the policies and procedures across the company?
- Is the training simple and easy to understand?
- What is the company culture around compliance? Do people really take it seriously or is there a “tick-the-box” mentality?
- Are there issues with reporting? How do people report? What is the culture regarding reporting issues?
- Does management “walk the walk” with compliance or just “talk the talk”?
- How does your company compare to its competitors in the area of compliance?
- What is the competitive environment like, both externally and internally?
- Where are the areas compliance could improve?
- Select a Facilitator. Compliance issues can be sensitive and people can be uncomfortable talking about them. For the focus group to succeed and be of value, everyone should be made to feel comfortable and that they are not being audited or reviewed, or they will not be confident to speak up. The author believes that this is where a good facilitator can help to keep “the discussion going, ensure that everyone participates, make people feel at ease and, most importantly, ensure that the discussion is lively. The facilitator might also need to be trained on some of the risk areas of the business and have a solid understanding of the business and the existing compliance program.”
- Prepare Your Opening Disclaimer. Some participants may want to know how their comments will be used, quoted directly or generalized. This would be the time to address such concerns and invoke confidentiality of names and other identifiers.
- Prepare Some Takeaways. The leader should be prepared to summarize what the next steps will be going forward, including when a report might be issued to management and what might included in the report.
- Prepare a Report For All Participants. A key component of any compliance focus group is a post-event report consolidating all sessions. This should be generated as soon as possible after the end of the last session. The report should include specific actions that will be taken based upon the input received from the focus groups. There will certainly be expectations from participants that, if they have reported any circumstances which warranted responses, they will hear what the compliance team is doing about a response. Participants will also want to see whether the feedback they gave is consistent with that given in the other sessions.
- Write a Report for Management. This report should focus on the larger issues raised in the compliance focus groups and, as the author notes, “looking at the trends, steps forward and lessons learned.”
While your compliance focus group may not be quite the game changer that the Louisiana purchase was for the U.S., it will certainly provide you solid information on your compliance program that you can use to move it forward; as the article notes, “from the people who use the program everyday—your employees and partners—you can find out what the program means, how it adds value (or doesn’t add value) and how it is seen by the management team around the world.” And while you are at it, you may want to check out the Red Flag Group’s Compliance Insider magazine; it is a great resource.
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