Compliance Officers: Their Role in Influencing Decision Making

How do compliance officers successfully influence the decision making of their organizations? When interviewing for her first  compliance officer position in 2001, Jenny O’Brien, Chief Compliance Officer of UnitedHealthcare, explained that she did not know much about the role of a compliance officer but was told by David Orbuch, currently Executive Vice President, Optum that effective compliance officers have the courage of their convictions, communicate well, listen versus talk, learn, are objective and nonjudgmental, and explore. Kimberly Otte, Chief Compliance Officer of Mayo Clinic, added that she considers compliance officers to be ethicists. O’Brien and Otte, addressed the role of compliance officers in a keynote address titled “Influencing: Decision Making,” at the 2014 Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) Annual Compliance Institute on April 1.

According to Otte, when influencing decision making, compliance officers should focus “not on what we can do, but what we should do going forward.” This, Otte said, would be different for different organizations. O’Brien and Otte identified five skills in the form of concentric circles that motivate and influence: (1) collaboration, (2) communication, (3) modeling, (4) measured, and (5) credibility/rigor.

Collaboration. O’Brien and Otte recommended that compliance officers be the “pig at the table” and not the chicken. Collaboration requires compliance officers to know the business and to use available resources. Compliance officers need to identify the root cause of any issue and find simple solutions without asking for more resources. An important element of an effective collaborative effort is for compliance officers to “assume benign intent.” In addition, when compliance officers are “influencing decision making,” for more cooperation, they should “lean on values, not laws.” Compliance officers also should evaluate whether behaviors are “risky” or “reckless.” If a behavior is “risky” the individual should be coached. If the behavior is reckless, the individual should be disciplined. Collaboration results in “letting the other person have your way.”

O’Brien gave a real life example of solving a problem regarding an issue of unlocked medication boxes on ambulances. To understand the problem, she “walked in the shoes” of the ambulance staff to better understand the work in their world. She worked their hours on a night shift, looked at the environment and found that there were four ambulance barns, observed the tasks that had they had to attend to with patients, learned what was critical to their job, and discovered how “unlocked” medication boxes occurred. Although she came with ideas to fix the problem, she collaborated with the ambulance staff to come up with a solution that would work for them.

Communication. According to O’Brien and Otte, effective communication involves both the intelligence quotient (IQ) and the emotional quotient (EQ). Proper communication requires compliance officers to identify who is involved, who needs to be involved first, who should be told, and whether the issue should be kept private. In addition, communication involves marketing the seven elements of an effective compliance program, which includes training and education to help staff and management understand why compliance is important and what they need to do to be compliant. To effectuate compliance, O’Brien and Otte recommended that compliance officers’ communications follow the “KISS” (keep it simple) principle.  Compliance officers should tell staff (1) what they need to do, and (2) what they need to know to do it. Explaining could include pictures, diagrams, checklists, and graphs. They added that “please” and “thank you” go a long way.

Another essential element of effective communication O’Brien and Otte identified is controlling the tone. Although the tone may be controlled by directing the conversation, they noted that a lot can’t be controlled. Being able to read the audience is important to effective communication. O’Brien explained that even when a compliance officer has to present bad news, the tone can be changed by starting with an ice breaker before the discussion that is a topic with which the audience can relate. O’Brien’s example was remembering the first day of kindergarten to establish a connection between the participants.

Modeling. Compliance officers must live the values of their organizations. They are role models, leaders, and shadows and must take the moral high ground, according to O’Brien and Otte. Taking the moral high ground includes consideration of law, policy, values, and an organization’s mission. That involves “what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it,” O’Brien added. Compliance officers should remain professional and not take things personally or project themselves as martyrs.

Measured. According to O’Brien and Otte, compliance officers must remain “cool, calm, and collected,” the triple C. They stressed that when compliance officers are presented with an issue that they intentionally maintain a poker face, remain curious, be objective, and see the glass as half-full. Generally, situations are not as bad as they might initially appear. Compliance officers are doers and responders and provide clarity to situations. Compliance officer must identify the business owner and solve the issue together; however, O’Brien added that “if you don’t know what to do, do nothing.”

Credibility/Rigor. Compliance officers need to provide competent reasons and sources and present the facts and the law but they should not overuse the law or rationale, O’Brien and Otte said. In addition, they recommended compliance officers use the tools of rigor including risk language, enterprise risk management, measures, dashboards, and metrics to prove up issues and improve situations.  When addressing complex issues, solutions should be in the form of simple steps. Compliance officers also must be judicious with authority and guard their independence, but also exercise humility. Although O’Brien and Otte said compliance officers should not to think out loud, they stressed the importance of being relevant and speaking up even in uncomfortable situations.