Raising the Standard For Compliance

Faced with a blizzard of regulatory changes, finance executives have grabbed their shovels. But a new survey questions whether they can dig fast enough.

If an investment in a company’s compliance system is really successful, then a company will have nothing to show for it — at least in the form of fines, litigation or adverse publicity. The absence of such events suggests that the process is working as it should, routinely identifying risks associated with noncompliance and notifying management in time to intervene.

13Nov_FN_p54But with little to show in the way of visible value, compliance can appear less deserving of corporate resources than, say, research and development. Indeed, how to meet expanding employment-related tax and payroll compliance requirements on a limited budget is a daunting challenge for senior finance executives, according to a recent survey conducted by CFO Research, in collaboration with ADP, a provider of human capital management services.

“We have a significant risk of missing deadlines, overpaying, underpaying or overlooking errors due to fewer resources and poor IT infrastructure,” said the vice president of finance at a company in the pharmaceuticals/biotech/life sciences field. He was one of 150 senior finance executives at U.S. companies with annual revenues of more than $100 million who responded to an online questionnaire.  (The full report, “Managing Tax, Employment and Payroll Compliance in a Changing Environment,” can be downloaded at cfo.com/research.)

The survey respondents shared their opinions on fortifying compliance efforts at a time when businesses are facing increasingly stringent reporting and disclosure requirements, greater scrutiny and reduced tolerance for even minor infractions. “Just staying abreast of changes in countries’ regulations and tax changes is a challenge,” said the treasurer of a media/entertainment/travel company.

13Nov_FN_p55aIndeed, about 80 percent of survey respondents reported that the task of monitoring tax, employment and payroll-related rule changes had become more time-consuming over the past two years. Furthermore, noted the VP of finance at a manufacturing concern, “penalties and interest for even small mistakes are large.” He spoke from experience: tax discrepancies “significantly impacted earnings” at his company last year. Similarly, the vice president of finance at a pharmaceuticals/biotech/life sciences company admitted that “we frequently live with the threat of an FDA shutdown due to poor documentation around FDA compliance.”

Such looming peril, however, isn’t translating into higher budgets for compliance. Slightly more than half of survey respondents expected that their company’s budget for compliance activities would remain the same over the next year. About 40 percent anticipated that their budgets would increase, but only slightly.

Closing Time
As the volume of regulatory changes has increased, so has their velocity. One survey respondent, the vice president of finance at a health care firm, said that a compliance failure (inaccuracies in the firm’s W-2 forms) was made that much more difficult to fix because “the short turnaround time to implement new federal tax changes was a problem — the window was far too short.”

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