REUTERS | An aerial view of tulip fields near the city of Creil, Netherlands April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Why the compliance community has a diversity issue

300 members of the International Compliance Association (ICA) were surveyed in September 2020 about their experience of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workforce. Their responses exposed some sobering statistics including that four in ten compliance professionals have experienced discrimination at work. However, the survey also recorded promising signs of progress in advancing D&I.

Sobering statistics on diversity in compliance

The results of the poll, ‘Diversity and Inclusion in the Compliance World’, are presented and discussed in the ICA’s white paper report ‘Breaking barriers: Advancing diversity and inclusion in the compliance world’. This report reveals that despite most workplaces implementing measures to improve D&I, there is still considerable room for improvement.

Key findings include:

  • Almost four in ten compliance professionals surveyed (38%) have experienced discrimination at some point in their career.
  • More than a third feel that not enough is being done to address D&I.
  • Almost half (48%) of respondents agree that regulations do address D&I, but that they also believe more could be done.
  • 38% believe more should be done.
  • More than one in ten (13%) think D&I has not been adequately addressed in their organisation at all.

On a more positive note, exactly half of the people surveyed believe their company is fully committed to D&I. So why aren’t compliance professionals seeing more progress?

Why compliance finds diversity a challenge

Sadly, discriminatory behaviour is still ingrained in many organisations. Given the general level of discrimination across society as a whole, this finding comes as no surprise to the experts involved in the report.

Just as in the wider community, unconscious bias and a general lack of diversity awareness leads to discriminatory behaviour at work. In organisations, this has a negative impact on company cultures and the career prospects of individuals. In many cases, discriminatory practices have been tolerated for so long that employees are fearful of speaking out.

Compliance professionals who did speak out in the poll also listed barriers to D&I. They include a failure of leadership, a lack of time, a fear of reprisals and a misunderstanding or miscommunication of the real issues and responsibilities involved. However, as one respondent noted, most of the obstacles that are commonly cited are in fact merely excuses.

Diverse organisations are more successful

A better understanding of the impact of a diverse workforce might help overcome existing barriers. As the report highlights, a more diverse culture leads to employees who feel valued as individuals, which improves employee morale, engagement and retention.

Companies that embrace D&I successfully are often rewarded with higher productivity, better overall organisational performance and fewer employment lawsuits. The result of which is generally a more positive perception of the company.

While the above is true across sectors, the report also highlights areas that are unique to compliance. As diversity automatically brings different perspectives on cultures and ethics, worldviews and competences, it can ultimately result in a more holistic way of approaching compliance.

How to support diversity and inclusion

Creating a diverse and healthy environment in compliance requires a concerted effort on many levels, as the report highlights.

Key recommendations:

  • Voice support – Put D&I front and centre to instil commitment across the organisation.
  • Define responsibilities – Ensure that HR and compliance work together and hold each other accountable, with compliance focusing on the assessment and management of diversity risks.
  • Organise regular training – Offer all employees the opportunity for D&I training.
  • Provide extensive exposure – Mix up teams and tasks so that employees work on areas outside their normal remit and regularly engage with individuals from a range of backgrounds.
  • Improve recruitment and hiring practices – This involves not only hiring individuals from diverse backgrounds, but also supporting them in the workplace.
  • Encourage open communication – Create safe spaces so employees can speak out without fear. Point out and draw attention to discriminatory behaviour at an appropriate time, in a non-aggressive manner and in a non-threatening place.
  • Set up procedures and consequences – Establish the line of tolerance and the related consequences for crossing that line. More importantly, ensure that appropriate action is taken whenever an issue arises.


For D&I to succeed in compliance, it’s essential to understand diversity and what it involves. Crucially, it will require considerable commitment to succeed, as well as the monitoring of measures and outcomes, both via formal employee engagement surveys and informal conversations. Ultimately, as the report makes clear, D&I is a constant, ongoing process.

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