Ethics Exchange: Is Ethics & Compliance a good career choice?

By Ethics Exchange posted May 21,2013 15:09



A new discussion format, Jeff Kaplan and Steve Priest discuss timely and timeless ethics & compliance issues through Ethics Exchange. 

Steve Priest:
Jeff, I am torn about this blog conversation. (Blogversation? Do I get credit for a new bad word?) Part of me thinks the last thing the ethics & compliance world needs is more talking heads. There are so many conferences and publications and blogs out there already. Yet when I think about the many conferences I have attended, I learned the most by participating or listening in on conversations, usually in between or after PowerPoint-laden presentations. Sometimes even lubricated by a beer or two …

Jeff Kaplan: I share both your doubts and your optimism, Steve, but—like most E&C people—I tend to be guided by the latter way of looking at things.  In particular, I hope that when the talking heads are in fact talking with each other, the result is a conversation in which others are more likely to join.

Steve:  Then let’s get right to it. Since this is graduation season, let’s discuss ethics & compliance as a career.  Would you recommend it to a niece or nephew graduating from college?

Jeff:  There are many wonderful qualities to working in this field.  It is certainly a helping profession.  It also is a pretty new field, so one has the opportunity to be a pioneer in its development.  It is very interdisciplinary, too—an E&C professional draws on many fields of knowledge: ethics, of course, but also psychology, economics, law, among others.  So, there’s lot to commend E&C as a career choice.

Steve:  Especially since many college grads without technical or scientific degrees would take any kind of job these days. And with the Bureau of Labor Statistics highlighting compliance in the Top 20 fastest growing occupations last year, ethics & compliance seems like a pretty good bet. Yet I hear a “but” in your tone …

Jeff:  Well, I would need to be honest with my niece or nephew and tell them that it can be a career dead-end—meaning there may be limited upward mobility in E&C for all but the largest organizations or highly regulated ones and also that it may not provide the skills necessary to transition into other fields.  

Steve:  Dead-end is kind of harsh, Jeff. I agree that there is limited mobility within E&C, and the potential to get pigeon-holed preventing transition into other fields. So it is unwise to plan for a career fully within E&C. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. I like to think about what I would want to happen if I were a long-term shareholder of a publicly traded business—What do I think would be in the best interests of the company? And I don’t think that having an E&C department made up of people who had spent their entire careers in ethics & compliance would be good for the business. These E&C professionals would not be able to understand the realities of the business—which would prevent them from doing their jobs well.  

So, Mr. Robinson, it sounds like you would not tell your niece or nephew that E&C is the “plastics” of the next decade.

Jeff:   That’s one of my favorite lines from a movie, but another is “This is the business we’ve chosen” from The Godfather II.  I’ve thought of that at various times—and there have been many—when I’ve seen an E&C person “bumped off,” not literally of course, but in the career sense.  And so I would say to my niece and nephew that E&C can be a dangerous career choice; if one takes on powerful interests in an organization and loses.  Not only can this imperil the job that one holds, but it can be hard to find new work in the E&C field after that.

Looking at it another way, in most types of work, if you do a great job the worst thing that can happen to you is someone else steals credit for your efforts.  In E&C it can be substantially worse than that.  So, my two concerns are too much morbidity and too little mobility. 

Steve:  I agree that the E&C profession faces too little mobility and too much morbidity. However, I believe that only the lack of mobility makes E&C distinctly different from other professions. To rise through the ranks of audit or legal or HR or any of the other organizational cost centers you sometimes need the guile of a serpent. The difference with E&C is that many see it as a “higher” calling, where political considerations should not matter. And the reality is that politics and prudence always matter. In every organization, every size, every field of endeavor. Reconciling this with ethics is why this is such a fascinating field.

Jeff:  As I said at the beginning, I’m of the optimistic persuasion, and so am happy for those to be the last words on the topic… for now.




Jun 16,2013 16:36

First, thanks to Jeff and Steve for their contribution. I am in some ways more optimistic. The conversation seems to assume that the E&C Officer necessarily leads a "non-upwardly mobile" existence and, if forced to take a tough stance, may find him or herself moving in a negative career direction. While that is possible, I think that E&C officers are more often in a good position to demonstrate that they understand their companies' key issues and can deliver on instituting and managing complex programs. That can (and has) led to upward mobility and larger spheres of influence. But the E&C professional cannot simply look at him or herself as the last line of defense against wrongdoing. You have to demonstrate that you can be an affirmative force to help the business move forward in an ethical manner.

May 28,2013 08:11

I feel more optimistic than Jeff. Politics occurs in every job that a niece or nephew might pursue. Yes, organizational politics in E&C is well-above average, but that's an understandable tradeoff given the potential power for positive change that one can accomplish. My nieces and nephews are high-minded and values-driven and would love a job where they can make a positive difference. That said, I certainly agree with Jeff that anyone going into the field should understand the risks and be personally prepared for the possible "morbidity" that Jeff acknowledged.

May 25,2013 07:12

The first generation of E+C professionals, immediately following chapter 8 of the FSG's, were mostly high-level executives, appointed following highly visible scandals. Over time we've seen the position de-graded to lower-levels in the organization, with career risks as noted. More recently, however, it is being elevated to new status and independence, driven in large part by various regulators. Witness HHS and numerous settlements in the pharmaceutical industry. Similar demands are now being placed on banks by their regulators. Given rising reputation risks fueled, in part, by social media and mobile technology, combined with increased regulatory demands, it's no surprise that E+C is one of the fastest growing professions. I believe capitalism is beginning to experience a "extreme makeover." Companies without a soul are becoming increasingly isolated by the needs and interests of various stakeholders. We are increasingly seeing a flight to integrity by all stakeholders. E+C professionals are the moral agents of their organizations, and their place in the organization is becoming increasingly more valued. Together, we can, and do, make a difference.....Thank you for launching this excellent point/counterpoint dialogue.