At a recent meeting of top business executives to update the company’s policies, there was unanimous agreement that environmental compliance was a key element. A no-brainer, most would assume, then move on to the next item. Instead, I pressed them on what they really meant by “compliance,” and if they were fully committed to letter-of-thelaw compliance. For example, would they be willing to instruct their supervisors to report a sheen on water caused by a few drops of oil? One company I am familiar with would.
This group clearly was not ready to explore the relevance of toothpicks to the definition of a navigable waterway,1 but the discussion prompted a lengthy and revealing interpretation of compliance. For one executive controlling a large segment of the operations, compliance was a relative term based on the practices of the competition. Clearly, no one was engaging in gross noncompliance, but certain activities believed to be regulatory overkill, silly or a nuisance were routinely ignored within the industry sector. Like horseshoes and hand grenades, close enough was good enough as long as everyone else played by the same unwritten rules and the agencies did not enforce the written ones.
The debate led to specific language in the policy guidelines to clearly state that the behavior of competitors has no bearing on how the company will operate. In the future, if the competition is operating at a cost advantage because they are taking short cuts on compliance, this company’s employees would not follow their bad (and risky) practice. Some companies use “100%” to describe their compliance policy. But even this numerical modifier is subject to rationalization and interpretation and must be supported by crystal-clear language and training.