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Trust but Verify: The Cold War's Contribution to Corporate Compliance

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President Ronald Reagan wanted to learn a few Russian proverbs. An advisor had told him that Russians speak in proverbs and it might be handy to know a few as the United States and the U.S.S.R. negotiated arms treaties during the Cold War. One Russian proverb became President Reagan's favorite: "Doveryai, no proveryai" or "trust, but verify." At one joint press conference with his Soviet counterpart, the President repeated the proverb in both Russian and English. Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev laughed and said, "You repeat that at every meeting." President Reagan smiled and said, "I like it."

President Reagan put the words he liked into action, when he and Secretary Gorbachev negotiated the intermediate-range nuclear ("INF") missiles treaty at their October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. The INF Treaty featured an agreement to remove intermediate-range nuclear ("INF") missiles from Europe, along 10-years of on-site verification inspections. Corporate compliance leaders should adopt the same attitude: Trust your employees to comply with the company's policies, which they have agreed to follow as a condition of their employment, but also verify that they are doing so. Here are a few tips on how to do that.

  • Write the agreement in a language the employees understand. The INF Treaty was written in both English and Russian, with both texts being equally authentic, so that each side could understand the agreement. Likewise, your company's policies must be in a language your employees understand. If you employ legal terms of art, such as "hostile work environment" or "reasonable accommodation," provide definitions and examples. Recall also that length is an enemy to comprehension: The longer a policy, the less likely any employee will read and retain its particulars. Consider summarizing each policy at the outset and using bullet points to list the top three points you want your employees to remember.
  • Ensure that your employees know the agreement. Both President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev spent many months negotiating the INF Treaty. By the time they signed the agreement, they (or at least their advisors) were thoroughly familiar with its content. Do your employees know the company policies they have agreed to honor? At the outset of a job, employees are inundated with forms to sign and policies to understand. Do you have any confidence that these employees actually know the company's policies? Instead of trying to convey your company's compliance policies at the outset of employment, perhaps it would be better to wait a little bit. Let your new employees become familiar with their jobs and then hold an orientation session dedicated to compliance. Remember also that not everyone has the same learning style. Offer your compliance training in a variety of ways, including in-person seminars, on-line training, newsletters and Podcasts.
  • Make the policies easily accessible to your employees. If you want to read a copy of the INF treaty, it is easy to find. Just visit the U.S. State Department's website (http://www.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102360.htm). In addition to the full text of the treaty, the website provides a Table of Contents for the INF Treaty and a narrative that places the Treaty into a historical context. Are your company's policies equally accessible to your employees? Do they have tables of content? May employees search for keywords? A compliance policy that is difficult to find is easy to ignore.
  • Provide multiple means to report violations. The U.S. Department of State maintains a Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Periodically, the Bureau issues a report on whether the U.S. and Russia are complying with the INF Treaty and other agreements. A company also needs a compliance bureau to which employees, vendors and members of the public may report violations of company policy and the law. This bureau should be accessible via many different means, including an online reporting tool, a toll-free telephone number, a Post Office box, and even a fax machine. Ensure that reports may also be made anonymously. Many employees are afraid to report wrongdoing for fear of retribution. Providing anonymity may encourage those employees to bring problems to your attention.
  • Periodically verify compliance. Both the USSR and the United States had their inspectors visit the other country's facilities and ensure that the agreed upon steps were being taken. A company should also send its inspectors to periodically visit its various facilities and ensure compliance. Does your company have a privacy policy that mandates sensitive employee data have restricted access? Send your compliance officers to visit your various Human Resources Departments; see whether they limit access to both their physical and electronic data.

In his January 1989 farewell address to the American people, President Reagan discussed the highlights of his eight years in office, including the arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Companies that are interested in improving their compliance programs should listen to what the president said: "It's still trust - but verify. It's still play - but cut the cards. It's still watch closely - and don't be afraid to see what you see."

Steven L. Snyder offers labor and employment counseling, litigation and alternative dispute resolution services at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC, in Huntington, West Virginia. He has helped administer and enforce compliance programs as a staff attorney with the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission and as an in-house attorney for General Electric.

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