From Regulator to Business Enabler: Use Employee Communications to Re-Position Your Compliance Function

Two Key Communications Challenges for Compliance Functions

With a steady drumbeat of new compliance requirements resounding from Washington, Brussels, Beijing, and elsewhere, the importance of compliance communications for the industry has increased significantly in recent years. Employees across the value chain – in R&D, manufacturing, regulatory, commercial operations and sales, etc. – all need to understand compliance requirements and their responsibilities in implementing and enforcing them. The challenges of getting easily digested, up to date information out to new and tenured employees are immense. And global pharma employee populations are far from static: they are continually disrupted with acquisitions and reorganizations.

While the volume of compliance requirements steadily increases, compliance leaders are competing more than ever for employee communications bandwidth with a raft of other communications efforts about strategy, business performance, culture, cost management, and commercial initiatives, among many others. The burden falls to compliance leaders to design and deliver effective communications within this sea of competing messages.

And yet, even those pharmaceutical compliance managers who have developed reliable training and information dissemination mechanisms still struggle to keep open the channels from front line and employees back to compliance. There are simply no metrics describing unreported violations, which instead are often remediated immediately within the work group where they are discovered. But lack of visibility into these incidents leaves compliance organizations unable to address similar risks elsewhere, and their organizations are increasingly vulnerable to costly and damaging whistleblower reporting. As long as this risk remains real, the two-way street of compliance communications with employees is out of balance.

Pharmaceutical compliance leaders face a double-edged problem: keeping employees informed about their compliance responsibilities on the one hand, and building a culture of open reporting and compliance on the other. These challenges point out the critical importance of the compliance function’s communication efforts – just at a time when staff budgets are being squeezed in most pharmaceuticals. A few principles extracted from research in the organizational communication and justice fields shed light on what compliance organizations can do to make the most of their communications efforts, thus improving awareness, behavioral compliance on the front lines, and employee reporting of violations and/or questionable situations.


1 – Keep communications about responsibilities simple and relevant. Just like Goldilocks in the three bears’ house, employees respond best when descriptions of their compliance responsibilities are “just right” – not too detailed and not too scant. Best practices use “push” tactics of outbound communications and training to make people aware of their high level responsibilities and the warning signs they should be watching for, then make more detailed information available on a “pull” basis to the employees who are seeking it. Unfortunately, compliance communications often miss the simplicity mark because messages and requirements pile up on top of one another. For example, in the US, Sunshine Act requirements are now being supplemented with Affordable Care Act requirements. As a result, compliance rules are often arranged according to legislative developments, and rarely organized around common employee tasks and responsibilities. Compliance leaders can radically improve the effectiveness of their communications by working with operational managers to better understand their work processes, then making compliance requirements “user friendly” by presenting them in the context of the employees’ day to day activity stream. Without this effort, compliance requirements become arcane lists that are virtually impossible to keep top of mind for the right employees at the right times.

2 – Demonstrate commitment to your target audience’s interests. One of the problems with internal compliance reporting is that many employees believe it will complicate their work lives by requiring extra reports, remedial action, and even risk retaliation from coworkers or supervisors. But research into procedural justice shows that if people feel their interests are fairly considered and represented, they will support a decision or policy even if it is contrary to their short-term interests. What this means for compliance managers is that stories demonstrating swift, fair, and non-punitive responses to internal reporting will shift employees’ perceptions of compliance functions from a controlling, inhibiting function to one that allows them to do their best work, in line with their highest principles. This context increases the likelihood of internal reporting – even if that is likely to require extra work on their part.

At one large pharma, an employee recently asked his manager to involve their compliance liaison in a decision about a conference physician education event where rules regarding numbers of attendees were unclear. The question identified a “grey area” in internal physician education guidelines that, if undiscovered, might have led to Sunshine Act violations, fines, and bad publicity. The manager and employee were praised as examples of corporate citizenship at a subsequent divisional town meeting, and the potential avoided damage was emphasized as the story was distributed across the commercial operations and compliance networks. Making legends out of employees who use internal reporting procedures appropriately creates a context where employees perceive internal compliance responsibilities as job-enabling, rather than a regulatory burden.

3 – Manage your function’s brand to help people understand that compliance serves a bigger purpose. The word “compliance” is unfortunate as it implies a minimal commitment; it seems to suggest adherence to the letter but not the spirit of the law. In 1958 Herb Kelman set the stage for years of psychological research by differentiating three levels of motivation for behavior that advances organizational interests: compliance, identification, and internalization. These motivations distinguish between an employee who follows internal reporting guidelines because there will be unwanted consequences if she doesn’t, and identity-based behavior, where she reports because she believes it advances her and her colleagues’ interests and/or because she believes it is the right thing. Obviously the second type of employee behavior is the kind that today’s pharmaceutical organizations want to nurture. Compliance functions can do that by emphasizing how their services reinforce a commitment to quality and allow people to serve their companies’ highest purposes of improving peoples’ lives and health. These messages need to be clear and reinforced with stories that demonstrate heroic action and good decision making.


Effective employee communications are a core competency for any internal compliance organization. Leaders of compliance functions need to select and/or develop their managers’ individual skills in this area, and should strongly consider an internal communications function or center of excellence to deliver audience-centric messages about employee requirements and reporting responsibilities to their client organizations. Good relationship management with operational and front line managers – in the context of a stance that demonstrates commitment to organizational success and performance – is critical to success.