The Sisyphean Pursuit of Creating a Culture of Compliance

By its title, this article might appear to imply that the creation of a culture of compliance is an illusory thing. While the conclusion is not quite so simple, the title does suggest that achieving a sustainable sense of compliance within any corporate culture is one that requires a continuously evolving effort to establish and ascertain something ethereal.

Unlike the notion of measuring the effectiveness of a compliance program, which arguably could be accomplished through a review of metrics, tangible targets, surveys, and the like – all of which have been cited by compliance professionals and cross-functional working groups as adequate tools – determining whether a culture of compliance has been achieved requires a more subjective examination of the compliance program itself and the responding behavior of the corporate body which it governs. It is the latter which harkens back to Sisyphus, the King of Corinth stemming from Greek mythology whose ultimate plight in the afterlife was to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down time and time again.

The reciprocating behavior of employees serves as both the litmus for achievement and the now-metaphorical impediment to the effectiveness of compliance programs. With this understanding, determining whether one has succeeded in creating a culture of compliance requires a keen framing of the question. If the question is wrong, the answer will be inadequate. The underpinning of this disquisition is a probing of employee ethicality and the extent to which the same has been interwoven into the fabric of the company enterprise-wide. So, as it relates to culture, the question becomes: should compliance officers query whether they have hit a metric or should they ask whether they see evidence of collective “right” choices being made – the former arguably being achievable in singular efforts and the latter only through an accumulated multifaceted push of the boulder uphill?

In an examination of the compliance program itself, Technology, Process, and Design are all tools available not only to assess but also to influence employee behavior. If used effectively, one could hope to see an erosion of the boulder or a leveling of the hill to reveal a horizon displaying corporate integrity.

Beginning with tech, the pairing of Technology and compliance professionals is a recent coupling driven in most instances by transparency legislation. Aggregate spend reporting requirements have redefined the roles of compliance professionals and scopes of programs. Beyond legislation, however, there remains the greater opportunity to leverage technology as an asset to allow compliance teams to have a virtual presence or impact on corporate activities where once they did not have an imprint or insight.

Such is meaningful as compliance programs have often had concerns of operating too lean, yet still having the formidable task of driving a culture of compliance within the organization. Technologies such as compliance dashboards, field-based compliance tools, or ethics hotlines have the potential to serve the dual purpose of weaving notions of compliance into the corporate framework to influence employee ethicality as either visual, analytical, or access tools and further move the mass upward.

While Technology if developed thoughtfully can move the mass along, its inanimate nature falls short in achieving the essence of cultural compliance, which requires a deeper influence on the people component. Process can be a people-centric tactic. Through strategic policy drafting, compliance teams have the opportunity to be more anticipatory and preventive through written word and direct behavior through Process. Compliance teams, if at the table, can have a front seat to the decision-making process of the corporate body and in this context provide feedback, guidance, and course correction through dialogue which hopefully influences the listener. Similarly, policies can serve as educational mediums not only to direct but teach the reader. The desired outcome is a cultivated employee base that proactively considers compliance and chooses ethically.

Design lends itself not only to an examination of the compliance program but can also influence the behavior of the corporate body. Leveraging the design of the compliance program to influence the ethical decision-making of employees can serve as a tool to steer behavior on a macro level and thus sharpen the lens on cultural compliance. The historical premise is as follows: Aristotle posited that individuals become ethical by undertaking ethical actions and that each builds ethical character through habituation within their situational contexts. In short, a person becomes more ethical with each ethical decision he or she makes. Tactically incorporating ethics-centered constructs, certifications, reminders, and other behavioral ethics concepts into the architecture of a compliance program could serve not only to achieve compliant metrics but more importantly influence each employee to choose the “right” choice and thereby corporately increase in ethicality creating a culture of compliance.

While no one of these notions – Technology, Process, or Design – is the sole key to creating a culture of compliance, the sum helps move programs towards the top of the hill and provides indicia of accomplishment. The Sisyphean endeavor of achieving an affirmative response to the question: have I increased any one employee’s ethicality through the compliance program and by consequence, as a collective, created a culture of compliance, is an answer that vacillates back and forth with the onboarding of employees and changing of business goals, just as Sisyphus found himself chasing and pushing a stone.


Charlene Davis (LAW ‘05) is the Associate Vice President & Head of Healthcare Compliance North America for Sun Pharmaceutical Industries, Inc. and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Temple Center for Compliance and Ethics.