The cornerstone of a US Foreign Corrupt Practice Act (FCPA) compliance program is its written protocols. This includes a Code of Conduct, policies and procedures. These requirements have long been memorialized in the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines (FSG), which contain seven basic compliance elements that can be tailored to fit the needs and financial realities of any given organization. From these seven compliance elements the Department of Justice (DOJ) has crafted its minimum best practices compliance program, which is now attached to every Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) and Non-Prosecution Agreement (NPA). These requirements were incorporated into the 2012 FCPA Guidance. The FSG assumes that every effective compliance and ethics program begins with a written standard of conduct; i.e. a Code of Conduct. What should be in this “written standard of conduct? The starting point, as per the FSG, reads as follows:
Standards of Conduct, Policies and Procedures (a Code of Conduct)An organization should have an established set of compliance standards and procedures. These standards should not be a “paper only” document, but a living document that promotes organizational culture that encourages “ethical conduct” and a commitment to compliance with applicable regulations and laws.
In the FCPA Guidance, the DOJ and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) state, “A company’s code of conduct is often the foundation upon which an effective compliance program is built. As DOJ has repeatedly noted in its charging documents, the most effective codes are clear, concise, and accessible to all employees and to those conducting business on the company’s behalf.” Indeed, it would be difficult to effectively implement a compliance program if it was not available in the local language so that employees in foreign subsidiaries can access and understand it. When assessing a compliance program, DOJ and SEC will review whether the company chapter has taken steps to make certain that the code of conduct remains current and effective and whether a company has periodically reviewed and updated its code.”
In each DPA and NPA over the past 36 months the DOJ has said the following as item No. 1 for a minimum best practices compliance program.
- Code of Conduct. A Company should develop and promulgate a clearly articulated and visible corporate policy against violations of the FCPA, including its anti-bribery, books and records, and internal controls provisions, and other applicable foreign law counterparts (collectively, the "anti-corruption laws"), which policy shall be memorialized in a written compliance code.
Stephen Martin and Paul McNulty, partners in the law firm of Baker and McKenzie, developed one of the best formulations that I have seen of these requirements in their Five Elements of an Effective Compliance Program. In this formulation, they posit that your Code of Conduct, policies and procedures should be grouped under the general classification of ‘Standards and Procedure’. They articulate that every company has three levels of standards and controls. First, every company should have a Code of Conduct, which should, most generally express its ethical principles. But simply having a Code of Conduct is not enough. So a second step mandates that very company should have standards and policies in place that build upon the foundation of the Code of Conduct and articulate Code-based policies, which should cover such issues as bribery, corruption and accounting practices. From the base of a Code of Conduct and standards and policies, every company should then ensure that enabling procedures are implemented to confirm those policies are implemented, followed and enforced.
FCPA compliance best practices now require companies to have additional standards and controls, including, for example, detailed due diligence protocols for screening third-party business partners for criminal backgrounds, financial stability and improper associations with government agencies. Ultimately, the purpose of establishing effective standards and controls is to demonstrate that your compliance program is more than just words on a piece of paper.
In an article in the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) Complete Compliance and Ethics Manual, 2nd Ed., entitled “Essential Elements of an Effective Ethics and Compliance Program”, authors Debbie Troklus, Greg Warner and Emma Wollschlager Schwartz, state that your company’s Code of Conduct “should demonstrate a complete ethical attitude and your organization’s “system-wide” emphasis on compliance and ethics with all applicable laws and regulations.” Your Code of Conduct must be aimed at all employees and all representatives of the organization, not just those most actively involved in known compliance and ethics issues. From the board of directors to volunteers, the authors believe that “everyone must receive, read, understand, and agree to abide by the standards of the Code of Conduct.” This would also include all “management, vendors, suppliers, and independent contractors, which are frequently overlooked groups.”
There are several purposes identified by the authors which should be communicated in your Code of Conduct. Of course the overriding goal is for all employees to follow what is required of them under the Code of Conduct. You can do this by communicating what is required of them, to provide a process for proper decision-making and then to require that all persons subject to the Code of Conduct put these standards into everyday business practice. Such actions are some of your best evidence that your company “upholds and supports proper compliance conduct.”
The substance of your Code of Conduct should be tailored to the company’s culture, and to its industry and corporate identity. It should provide a mechanism by which employees who are trying to do the right thing in the compliance and business ethics arena can do so. The Code of Conduct can be used as a basis for employee review and evaluation. It should certainly be invoked if there is a violation. To that end, suggest that your company’s disciplinary procedures be stated in the Code of Conduct. These would include all forms of disciplines, up to and including dismissal, for serious violations of the Code of Conduct. Further, your company’s Code of Conduct should emphasize it will comply with all applicable laws and regulations, wherever it does business. The Code needs to be written in plain English and translated into other languages as necessary so that all applicable persons can understand it.
As I often say, the three most important things about your FCPA compliance program are ‘Document, Document and Document’. The same is true of communicating your company’s Code of Conduct. You need to do more than simply put it on your website and tell folks it is there, available and that they should read it. You need to document that all employees, or anyone else that your Code of Conduct is applicable to, has received, read, and understands the Code. For employees, it is important that a representative of the Compliance Department, or other qualified trainer, explains the standards set forth in your Code of Conduct and answers any questions that an employee may have. Your company’s employees need to attest in writing that they have received, read, and understood the Code of Conduct and this attestation must be retained and updated as appropriate.
The DOJ expects each company to begin its compliance program with a very public and very robust Code of Conduct. If your company does not have one, you need to implement one forthwith. If your company has not reviewed or assessed your Code of Conduct for five years, I would suggest that you do in short order as much has changed in the compliance world.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014