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Fast-growing field of compliance officers can fix problems, prevent fraud

By LISA MONTI 

If you don’t know what a compliance officer does, don’t be too hard on yourself.

The job has been around a relatively short time so it isn’t that well known, but its ranks are growing.

Roy Snell, CEO of the Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics, a non-profit professional membership organization, said the corporate compliance officer’s role “is to implement a compliance program to prevent, find and fix ethical and regulatory problems” using familiar tools such as audits, risk assessments, investigation and education. “If they find a problem they make sure it’s fixed, things are done to prevent it from happening again and that discipline is handed out if necessary.”

Snell said the profession has grown in just 20 years from practically zero to tens of thousands of compliance officers with vastly different functions. And with more and more federal and state rules and regulations cascading down on businesses, the demand for compliance professionals will snowball.

Cathy Mackenzie, vice president and general counsel for Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, heard at a recent conference that “the most rapidly growing career path and the one with the best opportunity for advancement is in compliance.” That’s especially true in heavily regulated industries such as banking, insurance and gaming.

Mackenzie handles the big ticket items such as licenses for the property’s owners and the casino itself while Island View’s compliance director and staff handle the day-to-day duties including changes in the casino’s surveillance camera layout and work permits for employees.

“The day-to-day compliance is very intensive,” she said. “There is a lot of I dotting and T crossing and making sure we’re not only playing by the rules of the Mississippi Gaming Control Act and the Mississippi Gaming Commission regulations but we also have our own playbook and we need to make sure we are abiding by our own internal controls.”

Snell said the role of compliance officer is not generally understood and in fact is often misunderstood. People think they make up rules and they’re punitive. Neither is true and there’s more myths like that, he said.

“We have enough rules. The compliance officer is simply there to help the company make sure the rules are followed,” he said.

And, he added, “Compliance officers keep employees from making mistakes that could result in punitive actions by the enforcement community.”

Snell said corporate compliance officers find the jobs “usually by accident.” and are often pulled from legal or accounting professions when the need arises. “Those people have to come in and learn the other elements of a compliance program on the job.”

He said people who want to become a compliance officer need technical skills and people skills but most importantly they need to be able to influence a company’s leadership.

“Problems rot in a company for years because nobody was able to influence the leadership to deal with it,” he said, citing the Enron and Worldcom scandals.

Snell estimated a couple of dozen universities now have a formal degree program for those who want a challenging career as a compliance officer. He said the profession is growing rapidly because of growing regulations and the need for enforcement.

“Our organization has three numbers we watch pretty closely: the number  of people who are members, the number who go to conferences and the number who get certified as a compliance professional, and all three of those numbers are growing roughly 10 percent a year,” he said.

The profession is growing not just domestically but internationally. He said his organization has about 1,000 members outside the United States and from about 75 countries.

“Many companies in the United States are multinationals. They need a compliance department that can handle regulations, cultural differences and language differences in many countries,” he said. “If you think following the rule of law in the United States is challenging, it is exponentially more difficult to follow the rule of law in a dozen or more countries.”

Snell said companies don’t need more auditors, attorneys or risk assessors. “We need someone who will fix the problems that are found. It’s a hard job but it’s a great place for people who want a challenge and increasing responsibility annually.”

About Lisa Monti

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