Geert Vermeulen is an experienced compliance professional, specialized in establishing and improving ethics and compliance programs in general and anti-corruption programs in specific. The interview below is published within the framework of "Compliance Conference: The Art of (regulatory) War" by KPMG Greece which will take place on 14 May 2019 at Divani Caravel Hotel, Athens.
In a nutshell, what are the main parameters affecting a corporate culture toward compliance and business ethics?
- I think that the most important parameter is the behavior of the top management. Nowadays the senior management usually says all the right things, but do they really mean it? That only becomes apparent from how they act. If the tone from the top, the tone from the middle or the behavior of the senior management is wrong, it is almost impossible for an Ethics and Compliance Officer to repair that. And to ensure that senior managers won’t get away with bad behaviour without any consequences, more countries should introduce something similar as the Senior Managers Regime, like the UK has done in the financial services industry, where senior managers can be held personally liable if things go wrong. I think that personal liability would be game-changer.
The other main challenge is the governance of the Ethics & Compliance function. Ethics & Compliance Officers need to be well informed of what is discussed in the meetings of the board and have a sufficient amount of authority, stature and independence within an organization. I usually try to ensure this by putting a Compliance Charter in place, that mentions all these things and also states that the Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer reports to a C-level executive and to the non-executive Board or the Audit Committee. For Chief Ethics & Compliance Officers this means that they need to have a sufficient level of seniority, expertise and a broad skillset. It would help Ethics & Compliance Officers if this would be included in corporate governance codes. I am really bothered by the fact that the role of the Internal Auditor is now commonly included in corporate governance codes, while the role of the Ethics & Compliance Officer is not.
What are, on your opinion, the biggest challenges for compliance officers, in the immediate future?
- Convincing business leaders that investments in compliance programs and in establishing an open, transparent culture of trust has huge benefits in the long term. It may be tempting to grasp a less ethical business opportunity in the short time. However, this is hardly ever a good idea in the long term. Luckily there is an increasing amount of empirical evidence that ethical companies deliver better business results in the long term. Not only are they better able to avoid scandals that result in fines, legal costs and reputational loss. In my view it is even more important that an open, transparent culture of trust ensures that people share their knowledge, cooperate better and are not afraid to come up with crazy, creative ideas.
I currently see the first signs that long-term investors are realizing this as well and are pushing companies towards a more ethical approach. In addition to that I think that investors should also take a closer look at the Ethics & Compliance function. If a company hires a reputable Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer, who then quits within a year or so, that could be signal to start disinvesting.
Find more information about the Compliace Conference here
ABOUT GEERT VERMEULEN
In 2016 Geert founded ECMC: Ethics & Compliance Management & Consulting. ECMC provides compliance training, consulting services and interim ethics & compliance management. Geert also speaks and writes on ethics and compliance.
Geert obtained most of his experience in-house. As Chief Compliance Officer Aon EMEA he coordinated compliance efforts in some 60 countries. Following inquiries from regulators Aon started its anti-corruption program in 2007. Geert has coordinated this program in the EMEA region from the start. According to the US and UK authorities Aon developed a best practice model.
Geert then moved on to become the Global Head of Compliance of Damco, the freight forwarding arm of the AP Möller-Maersk Group, where he was responsible for the compliance activities in 90 countries.
Before starting ECMC Geert worked as a Director of the Netherlands Compliance Institute (NCI). He has been the President of the Dutch Compliance Officer Association, is a member of the expert group on Culture and Behavior and the founder and chair of the expert group on Financial Economic Crime of the Association. He is also a member of the Professional Advisory Committee of the Law Compliance Minor at The Hague University.