Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Compliance challenges for start-ups in disruptive industries

In today’s fast-paced business world of innovation and advanced technologies, every company seems to offer the next in-demand disruption. Ever since the days of the dot-com boom and bust in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the infancy of e-commerce and internet-based or networked products and services, companies have been striving to identify revolutionary items and ideas to market to consumers eagerly awaiting the next life-changing thing to buy. Start-ups in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurial communities all over the world want to develop the next iPhone that will transform every aspect of modern human life. Companies that provide services instead of making products all want to be the next Airbnb, the Uber of their industries, and so on.

But are those companies, and those goals of disruption for the sake of itself, anything to which companies should aspire? Companies in all business sectors are trying to emulate technology companies, and they may not be the best role models in terms of regulatory compliance, risk control frameworks, and business integrity fundamentals. Disruption and sustainability aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but many of the companies that were visible pioneers in the current wave of technological innovation and development cut ethical or foundational corners to focus on growth, sales, and branding. Companies in the new generation which seek to copy their success and single-minded commercial focus will run into legal and supervisory obstacles sooner rather than later, now that their predecessors have overstayed the honeymoon period of lax regulatory attention and are running afoul of legal, tax, and compliance concerns all over the world.

The start-up community’s response to public exposure of fraudulent or insufficient business practices – such as companies buying their own products to falsify sales success for partners and investors, or violating straightforward business operations rules like participating in mandatory state insurance programs to maintain company licensure – is to go on the defensive and blame the media. Worse yet, they want to claim stand-out corporate misconduct from their start-up peers are the exception, not the rule, and distance themselves from it, without doing any self-examination or risk assessment to feed-forward into their own continuous improvement.

However, the venture capital firms that are keeping these start-up companies striving toward their disruptive ambitions have a fiduciary duty to their funders to contain reputational risk that could stem from these companies’ public relations and legal problems. The “bad apples” theory cannot win the day in identifying why so much goes so wrong at so many start-ups that were once ambitious and backed by prestigious funders and now have failed, and are being sued by fraud, investigated for investor abuse, accused of forgery or inappropriate accounting practices, and have otherwise missed out on reaching disruption and instead fallen into disrepute.

In any business dominated by private companies getting rich quick, delving into areas which are within loopholes or blind-spots to current legal and regulatory enforcement agendas, transparency is the victim to innovation and doing things the right way, with respect to ethical concerns or compliance requirements that could pop up further down the road from the beginning, is subverted in favor of making money, attracting more investors, and bringing a product or service to market first and with the most attention. “Fake it till you make it” is a toxic approach to management and is no kind of leadership whatsoever. Ignoring legal and regulatory requirements cannot go on forever, as the many bans and service stoppages Uber has experienced in the last year well show. Companies may be able to grow quickly this way, but they cannot keep their business running or have much hope of holding onto their ill-gotten gains unless they tread carefully with regulators and supervisors from the start.

The cultural forces at work here are strong, and disconcerting. Founders with no experience as CEOs and even less experience as functional managers or ethical leaders are given millions of dollars by investors and pressured to be geniuses, redefine business and whatever it is they have to offer to the market in everything they ever do, and succeed at all costs. Liberties are taken, misrepresentations are made, and not every brilliant troublemaker with a crazy idea and a team of engineers turns out to be any good at actually running a legal, functioning, mature business.

The hope, supposedly, is that people will merely bend or flaunt the rules, and not break them, but who’s making the distinction? The moral hazard is great of creating an incentive for behavior that would even lead incrementally to a company that is not in simple compliance with the legal requirements for operating a business in the city, state, or country where it is located. Cautious onlookers assume that maybe if a few corners are cut at the beginning when things are small, it will all work out okay because by the time the company gets big, someone who likes paperwork or understands laws will stumble along and lend a hand. This is immature and short-sighted thinking.

Even if some philanthropic compliance officer did intervene, it would be too late to fix the cultural decay that grows at companies that do not have adequate business values and controls from the beginning. When people ask how it’s possible that business fraud and misconduct went on for years at some companies, or permeated every level of the organization seemingly without detection or interruption – this values void is the answer. To avoid a culture where cheating, misrepresenting, and making unethical decisions are all common, the foundations of the company must include cultural values where that conduct is expressly defined as unacceptable, and business governance structures to prevent, identify, and punish it when it happens.

For more on the challenges to ethical decision-making, and pitfalls for fraud and non-compliance, faced by start-ups, especially in the highly competitive advanced technology world of Silicon Valley, check out this article in Fortune from December 2016:  The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley.

For further thoughts on the challenges that start-ups and emerging enterprises face with prioritizing compliance risk management, see this post on Tinder’s corporate culture and the role compliance can play in fostering professionalism in start-ups.  For practical tips, check out this post on compliance foundation must-haves for small businesses. And, check back next Wednesday, January 3, for a post on inexperienced (even if visionary) CEOs and the immature compliance cultures they cultivate by omission.


Design ethics of addictive technology

As social media platforms, the internet of things, and other online networks advance in sophistication and prevalence, the line between engagement and addiction becomes ever thinner. Features which are designed to make browsing the internet or using connected devices more comfortable, intuitive, and pleasurable are also vulnerable to misuse and abuse which can have highly negative impact on people’s daily routines and lives.

Indeed, the stereotypes of people too engrossed in their phones or tablets to even notice the people around them are widespread and real. So much of social interaction has been carried over into online communities and takes place on social media or in internet comment sections and forums. The positive possibilities of this kind of access to information and collaboration are boundless. Connecting across continents and sharing all kinds of information and ideas is powerful for learning, cooperation, and creativity. Making these systems better and more efficient for users to engage with only further empowers these uses. Designers, engineers, and technologists have taken the positive responses from users and implemented that feedback in coming up with new features and improvements with the aim of making the user interface and experience better.

Whether it’s making screens balanced with vivid images that are easy on the eyes or implementing machine-learning based algorithms that fill users’ feeds with the most interesting and entertaining information tailored for them, the original aim of these innovations is to make the platform or device more interesting to use and therefore to encourage the user to spend more time on it. This has obvious commercial appeal to the companies that create these networks and devices, their advertisers, and their other partners who are all competing to attract people’s attention and gain valuable impressions or content views. Time is money, and a faithful user is a lucrative one.

However, those eyeballs content providers and marketers wish to attract are, of course, inside the heads of people and therefore the ever-ramping effort to engage those people runs into risky territory where interest or active participation edges into dependency and addiction. There are countless studies which have shown health problems stemming from overuse of phones, tablets, computers, and other devices, including eye fatigue, migraines, sleep deprivation, and other problems related to vision, concentration, or stress caused by overindulgence in looking at screens. This is not to mention the destructive social impact that over-immersion in devices can have, isolating people from their families and communities as well interrupting work, diminishing traditional communication skills, and exposing people to online abuse and other unsafe or inappropriate content that could cause harm.

In fact, some of the individuals who have had the loudest voices against the dark side of the advancements of personal technology are in fact the designers and engineers who had a hand in actually creating the most addictive features. For example, the engineer who was involved in creating the Facebook “Like” button and the designer who worked on the “pull to refresh” mechanism first used by Twitter are among a growing group of technologists who have started to question and reject the role that immersive technologies play in their lives. These individuals understand the good intentions that were behind the original creation of these technologies, with the hope to make them more useful or fun for users, but they also see the downsides. Coined “refuseniks,” these early adopters have purposefully made efforts to diminish or balance the presence of technology in their lives. As many of these addictive behaviors center around the use of smartphones and applications on them, many of these people who designed these features and now speak out against them turn off notifications, uninstall particularly time-wasting applications, and even distance themselves physically from their phones by following strict personal rules about usage or cutting off access after certain times or in specific places.

The question remains – pioneers of these features may have matured within their own careers and lives enough to realize that their earlier intentions have destructive potential they don’t want to indulge personally. But how will companies creating products and services in this space balance this as public attention begins to more commonly acknowledge the problematic nature of these features? Being a refusenik cannot be the answer for everyone, as these devices and platforms do bring great value to their users and the world as a whole, despite the negative effect they can frequently also have. Organizations working in this space can take advantage of corporate social responsibility values to balance their innovation of new features with the expectations of how consumers can use them, for good or bad.

On an individual level, it is very helpful to take personal responsibility to acknowledge and understand how these platforms and technologies are designed to make people engaged and how that can turn to addiction. Being conscious of these features or tendencies in their use is key. People should push themselves to understand why and how they use these technologies before adopting and engaging in them. If they feel prone to misuse of it, then understanding the cause of it and exposure to it will help to mitigate its effects.

For an interesting perspective on high-tech designers and technologists who have rejected the technologies they sometimes played pivotal roles in creating, check out this article from The Guardian.


Silicon Valley and undoing the normalization of sexism as corporate culture

Much of the attention on Silicon Valley in recent months has been not for new technological innovations or advances in the markets. Unfortunately, the public discussion surrounding the high-tech and start-up world, and the individuals and companies that finance that industry, has been focused on worst practices for corporate cultures. As society at large grapples with gender equity, racial and ethnic representation, generational workstyles, politics in the workplace, and many other diversity challenges, the most frequent conclusion seems to be that the state of things in 2017 is not as progressive or integrated as may have been assumed.

Many high-profile Silicon Valley organizations have coped with this revelation of corporate intolerance very publicly. Among them is Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, a high-profile venture capital firm. Managing partner John Doerr was an investor in some of the highest profile first generation technology companies to come to market: Intuit, Netscape, Amazon, Google. When he hired Ellen Pao in 2005 as his chief of staff, it seemed like he was assertively signalling that Kleiner Perkins wanted to take the lead on elevating qualified women to visible leadership roles in Silicon Valley, where men have overrepresented women in management, and within the even more traditionally male-focused venture capital domain.

Pao’s experiences throughout her tenure at Kleiner Perkins, capped off with her 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit and her firing before that lawsuit came to trial, indicate a different environment. Rather than being valued for her contributions and promoted on her merits, Pao alleges that she was harassed after a workplace romance went bad and that she was often marginalized in her role, expected to take on essentially personal assistant type duties while investing or higher level tasks went to male colleagues. Instead of contributing to a gender-integrated workplace where individuals were elevated for their accomplishments, insights, and commitment to their jobs, Pao paints the picture of a dysfunctional and increasingly hostile environment.

Kleiner Perkins did not have policies or training against sexual harassment at the time Pao worked there. A control framework to identify, prevent, and address these corporate culture issues is imperative. Any company that does not set a tone on these matters and take the time to thoughtfully and proactively set expectations for an integrated, balanced organizational culture demonstrates no credible commitment to workplace equality and the merits of the diversity of viewpoints this brings with it.

Many cultural changes have been underway for so long that they are taken for granted or even pushed against by now as creating an undue burden in the other direction. The truth, however, is that these movements toward a more balanced, integrated workplace are still stymied by a lack of genuine commitment. Ideally the office would looks much more the best version of the world, where people are elevated for their merits and not their demographic traits, and are not kept from even getting on the road to success because of someone else’s decisions about their right to work because of a trait like gender. In order for this to really develop, though, leaders in business (both established ones like Kleiner Perkins and start-ups who are defining their corporate values for the first time) need to take ethical stock of where they stand and if they can commit to creating a culture where all people are accepted and utilized for their merits, then they need to do so visibly and meaningfully. The time of tokenism or promises without true intention needs to be past so that people of all kinds can get into legitimate leadership positions and then pay it forward to the next generation behind them.

Pao did not prevail in her lawsuit, but perhaps it will endure anyway as a test case. While it did not result in a guilty verdict, cases like this one can be a cultural watershed for policy and enforcement standards in companies to mitigate legal risk. Perhaps also other women working in, or fired from, Silicon Valley under similar circumstances can see where Pao succeeded and failed in her legal strategy and take up the cause on their own behalves. Bringing these issues into the public light can certainly drive change in creating a cultural imperative for women in tech to speak up and out.

For more insight on Pao’s experiences in Silicon Valley and happened with her lawsuit against her former employer, see this excerpt from her book on The Cut, originally from New York Magazine.