Pain Compliance

By Roy Snell

Listen to compliance professionals even if they don’t carry tear gas or put you in a headlock.


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Wikipedia Definition of Pain Compliance; “Pain compliance is the use of painful stimulus to control or direct a person or animal. The stimulus can be manual (brute force, placing pressure on painful areas, or use of painful hyperextension or hyperflexion on joints), use tools such as a whip or electroshock weapon, or use chemicals such as tear gas or pepper spray. The purpose of pain compliance is to direct the actions of the subject, and to this end, the pain is lessened or removed when compliance is achieved. This provides incentive to the subject to carry out the action required.”

People who don’t deal with material ethical and regulatory problems in business will eventually feel pain. Sometimes the longer you put off dealing with a problem, the greater the pain will be. The pain comes in several forms such as fines, penalties, stress, bad public relations, increased legal costs, jail time, reduced revenue, dropping stock prices, etc. Some problems are discovered, but ignored for years, by a company before the pain is applied; such as Enron, HealthSouth and Penn State University.

Compliance pain, is applied long after you had a chance to prevent, find or fix a problem. The aforementioned companies all experienced “Compliance Pain” because they did not experience pain compliance when they created the compliance problem. Of course it would be outrageous for a compliance officer to use pain compliance techniques such as tear gas to prevent a problem before it occurs. What are we to do, hurl tear gas canisters in a meeting room as a bad decision is being made? That is ridiculous but I bet some of these aforementioned companies would have preferred a little tear gas when they thought of the bad idea rather than suffer societies “compliance pain” later. The moral of the story is simple, listen to your compliance professional even if they don’t carry whips, tear gas, stun guns or occasionally put you in a headlock.


  1. The current (and recent past) mantra seems to be that crossing the ethics bridge to the “dark side” is ok as long as the corporation has set aside enough in the litigation escrow fund to handle the potential of being caught. When pain is administered to individuals (CEO’s, CFO’s, Board members) in the form of real jail sentences and personal fines, and not just as corporate fines, perhaps there will be a deterrent to thinking that it’s just a corporate breach of ethics and not a personal one.

  2. Interesting point, Roy. As I think you know, I believe that compliance, while certainly about pain avoidance, also can be about pleasure attainment. In other words, compliance doesn’t just have to be about taking this bitter pill today to avoid greater pains down the road, but can also be about finding ways to do business that are in everyone’s best interest. Whether we find compliance painful or pleasurable is often simply a matter of how the discussion is framed by the compliance professional in communicating with employees. It doesn’t have to be only about the pain…

  3. Good point Joel. I would use every trick in the book to prevent problems. I prefer the carrot too. The problem with the carrot vs. the stick is that the carrot works for almost everyone. It is the few people that pleasure attainment doesn’t work for that are killing the reputation of the business community. I would use pleasure attainment on everyone it works for. As for the rest, I would use the stick.

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