Rethinking Your Company’s Compliance Policies

As cases of malfeasances and fraud continue to occur in corporate America, human resource departments need to readjust and rethink compliance programs to insure their effectiveness, according to Stephen Paskoff, a human resources specialist.

Getting people to do the right thing involves overcoming hurdles that may be higher than generally thought, Paskoff said. We all like to think we would do the right thing if we saw someone doing something wrong, but there is too much historical evidence to the contrary to believe that would inevitably happen.

Paskoff cites the experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram to show how human nature, how our very makeup, leads us to sometimes blindly follow authority, and how this can thwart the aims of compliance programs. Such programs, which spell out what is right and wrong, and set up complaint processes, often are not enough to overcome our natural disinclination to buck authority.

In the experiments, people were asked to deliver electric shocks to subjects when they answered certain questions incorrectly. During the experiment, which was designed to see how far people would go in obeying authority in getting a job done, the person running the experiment commanded the people to deliver stronger and stronger shocks for wrong answers, even when subjects cried out in agony. (The cries were all fake; no real shocks were given.) What Milgram found was that almost everyone obeyed the experimenter and continued to deliver more severe shocks.

What the experiment showed was that doing the right thing was overshadowed by the desire to follow organizational rules and norms of behavior.

Another problem, Paskoff says, is that companies may themselves form cultures that encourage people to obey authority and accept wrongdoing, even when they don’t mean to. Often compliance programs focus on setting up the maximum of what can be done to enforce correct behavior, when they should be spelling out the very minimum of what should be done to address improper actions.

So, people do the least they can get away with and consider that to be enough. Their natural inclination to address a wrong is overshadowed by their reluctance to challenge authority.

Paskoff argues that compliance processes need to be reconsidered so that they don’t encourage inaction or the barely adequate response. To do this, he says the company leaders need to communicate the importance of compliance, that it is not merely a nice thing to do, but necessary for the very survival of the company.

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