Risk Insider: Paula Vene Smith

Choose Compliance

By: | May 6, 2015 • 2 min read
Paula Vene Smith directs the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project (PREP) and is a professor at Grinnell College. Paula consults on risk in higher education, and has written Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders. She can be reached at [email protected]

It’s common for leaders to create a mission statement that serves as compass and guide, both to chart new directions and to fine-tune everyday operations. Whether it’s a nonprofit, an educational institution, or a socially responsible business, the organization draws strength from its mission and values.

When leaders disagree, they appeal to these higher principles as a way to resolve differences and move ahead.

When I was writing the chapter on ethics and compliance for my new book, Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), several people who read this material in draft form raised the same question: How could I describe compliance as a choice?

Mandatory, obligatory, have to, required—these are the words commonly associated with compliance.

Leaders of an organization must carefully weigh the negative consequences before heading down the path of noncompliance.

I propose looking behind the rule for its reason. Most of the time, even when compliance is expensive and inconvenient, people will find that the reasons behind laws and regulations are consistent with the organization’s stated or implied values —  such as minimizing workplace hazards or providing access to people with disabilities.

But what about the rare case where compliance would violate or threaten our organization’s values?

Think of the times when laws regarding censorship, obscenity, or loyalty to the government have come into conflict with a university’s commitment to academic freedom, or times when anti-discrimination laws or insurance regulations come into conflict with the values of organizations with a religious affiliation. What happens then?

One of my colleagues objected to the idea that compliance can be viewed as a choice.

He wrote: “Many, many of the newest regulations [on colleges and universities] are tied to federal financial aid eligibility, without which noncompliant institutions would simply die. That partnership can’t be ended, nor even negotiated.”

But just last month, The New York Times reported on several private religious colleges that have done exactly that, discontinuing their federal student-aid programs in order not to have to comply with government demands.

As reported in the Times, “Ultimately, the board said accepting the money would have been a Faustian bargain that could compromise the school’s core beliefs and mission.”

It remains to be seen whether these small colleges can stay afloat without federal aid, and whether any organization can sustain a stance of civil disobedience in the face of powerful regulatory and judicial forces.

A third path sometimes can be found, as when the battle is taken to the courts, or the organization lobbies to get regulations softened or revised. Sometimes the conflict can be avoided in another way, as in the case of a Mennonite couple who ended their wedding business instead of renting their flower-shop and bistro for a gay wedding.

Leaders of an organization must carefully weigh the negative consequences before heading down the path of noncompliance. Such a step may mean losing business, or breaking off an otherwise beneficial alliance with a prestigious professional group or other association. Engaging in noncompliance can incur heavy fines or penalties. It may entail withdrawal of financial support, or of valuable accreditation.

The projected harm that noncompliance may wreak on the organization’s mission may be viewed as too steep a price, and leaders may ultimately decide to remain in compliance after all.

But it would be healthy to remember that choosing to comply is an active decision, so that all our efforts to follow through on compliance reflect the power of affirmative choice.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]