How compliance teams can use their expertise to manage issues surrounding women in the workplace

For the last 20 years, compliance teams have invested significantly in anti-corruption initiatives. Major companies hired anti-corruption experts, expanded their teams and introduced new technologies to address the growing risks of bribery and corruption, spurring a new industry of providers and experts in the compliance area. Why did they do this? Likely because the fines under the FCPA started to go into the billions and really hurt companies – which was a good reason to acknowledge that compliance with the FCPA and other global bribery laws deserved some focus.

The world is changing, however – and so are the risks facing businesses. That does not mean that areas like anti-corruption compliance and other traditional legal ‘pillars’ are no longer important or less warranted, but it does mean that there are new areas that have to be managed. Compliance teams are missing how their staff, stakeholders and communities see these issues in today’s business. But these new, ever-changing risk areas are important enough that we must focus on them.

One of the issues that companies should focus on and invest in (in my view, to the same level and tenacity as they give to areas like privacy or anti-corruption) is women in the workplace. Companies could invest in managing the rights of women just like they do with the traditional areas that compliance focuses on. Wouldn’t it be great if companies moved from policies written in the 1990s and some updated training (thanks mainly to the #metoo movement) into fully-fledged programmes that equalised the workforce and actually contributed to our common good?

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You might think that is more of an HR duty. But how is that working out? Given where we are at in the business world (and government), where women continue to be under-served, under-respected, discriminated against and sexually harassed in companies globally, it does not seem like it is working out well. You might say, ‘We have an investigations team that manages those issues.’ Again, that is totally missing the point. Compliance is not about investigations; it is about building a culture that drives behavioural and cultural change. This is not a policy endorsement with some e-learning that ticks a few boxes of activity – it is an overarching commitment to making things right, pulling apart stereotypes, dissecting norms and driving change.

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The rights and practices surrounding the development and protections of women in the workforce should not wait for legislation. Firstly, we do not know whether any legislation will ever be implemented, and, if it is, it is likely to be flawed. Secondly, we should not have to be driven by legislation and fines to drive action – these issues are far too important and must be tackled now. Thirdly, I am not sure governments are the bastion of expertise in this area and companies might be better to go ahead and implement standards themselves.

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Compliance experts are great at highlighting incentives and disincentives to drive behavioural change and, with enough behavioural change, cultural change. All the skills developed and used in other compliance programmes (e.g. changing a company’s behaviour when it comes to paying bribes and sales practices) can be used to change behaviours and improve the lives of women in the workplace. Compliance teams have these skills and would add considerable value and experience to this area to effectively drive change.

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Executives should invest in global teams to manage all the broader risks surrounding women in the workplace – not just ‘sexual harassment’ or ‘discrimination’. Compliance teams would be best placed to be an integral and leading part of the initiatives.

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Traditional compliance is about ensuring companies comply with laws and ethics (which are non-statutory laws that are codified in a code of conduct or similar). Building programs for women in the workplace mixes both statutory and non-statutory areas and brings together the areas that compliance professionals are good at managing. Compliance teams should take an active role in overseeing these initiatives and the behavioural change that comes with them.

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Fines brought by regulators for anti-corruption breaches are large and have no doubt driven the anti-corruption campaign across companies. While the fines might be lower in some of the legal areas surrounding women in the workplace, fines alone should not define which areas are invested in. Human rights must be an area of continued investment as they are paramount to our success as a human race.

A focus for compliance teams should be establishing protections and developing the rights of women. While most executives would say ‘These issues are not relevant in our company’, there is no perfect company in this risk area. Every company can do better and focus more on levelling the playing field. Every company has a way to go to meet compliance with the expectations of the community and the standards of human decency.

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