Satisfying regulators is an art form that many of us have yet to fully master. Increasing regulatory scrutiny is a fact of life today for corporations, whether privately held or publicly traded. In some highly regulated industries, corporate executives have described feeling as if their businesses have been placed under a regulatory microscope. Rather than giving in to the siege mentality this environment can create, general counsel and their internal clients should view each interaction with their regulators as an opportunity to build relationships and enhance their company’s image.
Achieving regulator satisfaction–and the benefits a corporation can derive from a productive relationship with regulators–requires a fundamental shift in the adversarial perception about regulators. Instead of hoping that they never knock on our doors, we should reverse the trend and, where possible, call on regulators first. In-house counsel who reach out to their government agency counterparts often find that they have opened important doors of communication and cooperation that, during periods of regulatory investigation or inspection, might otherwise be closed.
We also need to shift our tendency to think about regulators as faceless bureaucrats and view them instead as colleagues. Today’s regulator has a work-life that, in many ways, parallels ours. Like us, they work for organizations that have mission statements and initiatives, and for managers who set goals, objectives and strategies. Like us, they strive toward greater efficiency, enhanced compliance and better results. Our challenge of maintaining stakeholder satisfaction is directly relatable to their challenge of keeping public trust. Some regulatory agencies are even measuring customer satisfaction with their services and incorporating service and results measures into their performance plans–familiar strategies in the corporate world.
We should study our regulators in much the same way we research our customers. Just as the popularity of customer relationship management tools has grown in recent years, there should be a broader focus on “Regulator Relationship Management.” In-house counsel are often tasked with monitoring agency rulemaking and relevant legislation. But we also must frequent our key agencies’ Web sites and become conversant in their initiatives. It is there that we are likely to find areas of common ground, which are important tools for building a successful partnership.
By establishing relationships of mutual trust with regulators, in-house counsel have a chance to stay ahead of the curve. I have found that face-to-face meetings with regulators provide the best forum for demonstrating a sincere commitment to compliance.
Regulators who perceive this commitment are more likely to reach out to us informally in advance of enforcement issues or formal rulemaking periods. This enables us to avert crises and provide input.
Trust and credibility should be the cornerstones of our regulatory relationships at all times. We should share positive news and information with our regulators, periodically call them for advice and leave them comfortable to do the same with us. It is also important to carefully select our regulatory representatives–be they internal employees, external lawyers, lobbyists or government affairs specialists. When problems arise, cooperation, openness and transparency should be our guides.
In today’s corporate environment, regulators are as important a stakeholder constituency as customers, employees and suppliers, and failing to satisfy them leads to equally dire consequences. No longer should regulators be looked upon as the last group corporations want to knock on their doors. Instead, in-house counsel and their clients should view every interaction with regulators as a series of opportunities–to build trust and credibility, to find common ground and to work together toward common solutions.
Janice L. Block is the former general counsel and corporate secretary of Career Education Corp.