Compliance Activists vs. Effective Compliance Professionals


By Roy Snell

Some of the most ineffective compliance professionals I have met run up and down the hall with their hair on fire over every little thing. Ineffective compliance professionals see their role as that of an activist. They are very visible and vocal.  They see all that is wrong with the world, and they don’t recognize much of what is right with the world.  They see the bad in people and seem to ignore the good in people. They flail their arms and are constantly outraged, because they feel walls are being put up.  Ironically, they are more effective at building walls than masons, because their constant outrage and negativity… builds walls.

On the other hand, effective compliance professionals are patient and persistent, but don’t feel a need to be visible all the time.  They are stealthy and constantly working the room.  When they see a wall, they slowly work their way around it, rather than standing there indignantly screaming and pounding their fists against the wall.  They quietly motivate others to help.  They don’t feel the need to share every thought that goes through their minds.  They don’t need to be the center of attention.  They don’t think that every last, little tiny, irrelevant injustice must be immediately irradiated with the force of an atomic bomb.  They don’t think that they are better than everyone else or have a higher loyalty to integrity than everyone else. 

Effective compliance professionals speak up at very precise times during a meeting and make one or two very important observations calmly, rather than constantly striking out at everyone about everything.  They see the good in people, draw attention to good people, encourage good people, and encourage others to be good people.  They don’t spend all their time just pointing a self-righteous, negative, ethical finger at everyone.  Effective compliance professionals disagree with compliance activists who think finger–pointing can somehow find or fix an existing ethical or regulatory problem.  Rather than just relying on indignation, effective compliance professionals artfully and quietly use all the elements of a compliance program to prevent, find, and fix ethical and regulatory problems.  If there is a little resistance to something they want to do, they grab a different element of a compliance program and attack the problem another way.

Effective compliance professionals use creativity rather than outrage to prevent, find, and fix problems.  One such compliance officer gave leadership five questions to ask themselves before making a business decision.  Negative, finger–pointing, compliance activists are somewhat effective while they are screaming.  Creative compliance professionals are effective even when they are not in the room.

Effective compliance professionals don’t just buy a pulpit, stand in front of everyone, and preach.  They quietly go about searching for evidence of problems and motivating people.  Rather than assuming everyone is bad, they befriend people and listen intently for problems they can go fix.  The effective compliance professional shares their concerns with those who have the authority to fix the concern, rather than the next person they see in the hallway.  As opposed to taking the activist approach, effective compliance professionals have a high emotional IQ and use it to work with people, rather than working against people.


  1. Your comments remind me that from my perspective that there are essentially two categories that people fall within the compliance ranks.

    The first category are the “non compliance” professionals. These are the folks that are always finding that one typo in a slide, pointing out for everyone to hear about that ONE copier in the building that had PHI on the output tray during a walk thru or the one contract out of dozens that was signed but not dated, or have a preference of writing policies which describe what one can’t do rather than explaining what one can do. They live for non compliance and make it a point to let people know they found something, no matter how small or inconsequential.

    The second category, which is where I try to make sure I stay grounded which I will admit is not always easy, are those folks who I like to call compliance professionals rather than “non compliance” professionals as previously described Each day they make sure to identify and acknowledge that in their world which is moving along smoothly in accordance with the organization’s compliance program. Certainly, if nothing else because of the human factor that is inherent in many processes, a person applying this perspective will find a non compliance related issue or observation here or there without necessarily having to go out and look for it.

    I’ll leave those thoughts for consideration right there as I think most people can see or imagine how having one of these perspectives directly also contributes to how compliance professionals are perceived by others, including other compliance professionals.

    But I will put on the table the following question for folks to consider and to answer not necessarily publicly, but quietly and honestly as they look in the mirror…Which of these two categories best describes your approach as a compliance professional?

  2. This article was really thought provoking for me. I totally agree with the basic premise that both Roy and Frank are putting forth. No question on which approach is more effective.

    What keeps swirling in the back of my head is the old “nature vs. nurture” conundrum. Let’s take a compliance professional who is not innately approaching the compliance role negatively/overreacting (“gotcha”) – maybe not perfect but overall has good intent. In an organization with a supportive culture and with even decent Tone at the Top, Middle, and at the staff levels, the walls that would pop up for the compliance professional to make a way around are lower and narrower — easier to get over or around with quiet effectiveness and all the other positive approaches. Same compliance professional at another organization with bad tone all around, maybe approaching hostility, regarding the compliance role. The walls the compliance professional comes upon go up quickly (bump, ouch!), are very high and miles wide. Still hoping to make positive contribution, the compliance professional tries multiple low key strategies to get over or around and that approach fails miserably. Could this drive the professional to dabble in the “dark side” – when totally immersed in a negative culture, negative approach could be seen as the only thing that gets attention? Of course the hope is that the professional takes Frank’s advice to look in the mirror and then gets him/herself together to walk out the door rather than remain is this type of environment. In reality, sometimes such a move isn’t able to be effectuated as quickly as one might want.

    Anyway, I know fellow compliance professionals that have been in both types of situations, and I wouldn’t want to discount that the environment also affects what approach comes out, and how that individual is “seen” by others in the organization — among colleagues that seem from other measures to have fairly equal innate temperament and dedication to the profession.

    Just getting some thoughts out there. Feel free to call me out on this! Have a good weekend everybody!

  3. Marie,

    You bring up some very good points to ponder. Where I am coming from is more of a general context or approach where the compliance professional is more focused on finding those instances of “non compliance”.

    My view is simple.

    Instances of “non compliance” will be easy to find. So easy in fact that through the course of the day, one can’t help but trip over them from time to time. This is especially true if one goes out and mingles with the staff, does regular walkabouts, engages in meetings to review processes, or if one (and here’s where many people come up empty because they lack what could be called an adequate focus on the following) reviews the results of auditing and monitoring efforts.

    When I see someone who uses this “non compliance” approach, I often find there is something that this person is trying to compensate for such as I described earlier which may be a lack of good auditing and monitoring or other elements of a compliance program.

    Not saying this is always true, but I can say from a firsthand perspective, it is something I consistently see.

  4. I agree with the writer negativity will make employees run away from compliance professionals instead of seeking you out. I think the idea is to pick your battle daily.

  5. Perhaps a twist on that is to build one’s allies daily…battles will come and go…but hopefully one’s allies remain a constant.

  6. So true for so many critical roles in healthcare administrative efforts: Compliance Officers; Risk Managers; Quality Managers; Human Resources; Infection Control … and the list goes on.

    The damage to the program by those who breathe fire is immeasurable. It is far easier to lose the faith of your stakeholders over low-priority issues than to earn it in honor of those of high priority – Those that, when unsolved, wreak havoc on Mission.

  7. Another point to consider is that compliance is a process that exists on a continuum. Certainly along this continuum will be times when there will be incidents of non compliance along with many (hopefully!) more instances of compliance.

    Since compliance with processes that are often overseen or managed by other departments such as Risk Management, Revenue Integrity, Quality Control, Internal Audit, Finance, and others, to name a few, it opens the door for genuine collaboration between departments. In this way, each stakeholder within different departments is able to identify the who, what, when, where, why, and how (5WH1 model) on how an effective compliance program (ECP) can benefit a number of objectives across a span of departments and related processes.

    This is where I think compliance professionals are able to really extend the reach and benefits of the effects of what can be achieved through an ECP.

Comments are closed.