Ten Golf Lessons for Your Company and Its Compliance Program


By: Michael Matlock

The Game of Golf is rich in tradition, has worldwide appeal, state of the art ethical driven rules of play and played by millions. The Professional game of golf has evolved with superstar players, big TV contracts, million dollar prize money, new technology, high popularity and incredible skill level that has set the right “Tone at the Top” with its ethics and integrity. Much has changed for the good of the game but what hasn’t changed is that it maintains its uniqueness by allowing the rules of the game to govern the game, the culture and the brand. Unlike other sports, it is close to non-existent to hear of Golfers in trouble with the law, breaking the rules, or poorly representing their sport, if so the consequences are very severe. The Golf Culture has a unique and time honored tradition of integrity that serve as a standard barrier to build your Company brand and empower your compliance Program. Here are Ten Golf Lessons that can make your company and your brand better.

1. Each Golfer not only plays the game but serves as his/her self-appointed Compliance and Ethics Officer. The golfer is expected to not only know the rules of play, play by them, but more importantly call a penalty on himself or if unaware of the infraction, allow a playing partner to do so. To not adhere to the high ethical standards of the Game is to not respect what it stands for.

Business implication: The Best Regulator is the entire Culture, those with the most at stake. Each stakeholder from a title standpoint cannot serve as the Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer, but everyone has the shared responsibility of protecting the brand and doing business pursuant to approved company policies and procedures. The expectation should be when company policies and procedures are not followed, the violator should self-report his/her actions to one’s management or Compliance  Department instead of waiting for his actions to be uncovered by his companies controls, auditing processes or one’s colleague.

2. The game of golf has established a set of rules that apply to everyone, everywhere, and every time they play a round of competitive golf. Those rules manifest themselves as a control mechanism that protects the integrity of the game. Regardless of whether the Golfer is, Jack, Arnold, Tiger, Phil, Rory or the great Bobby Jones, all have respected and played the game by the same of rules and, if broken, the consequences are the same. Who they are and what they have meant to the game does not give them special treatment if misconduct or rules are broken.

Business Implication: Regardless of one’s title, tenure, past history, popularity, production, or financial impact, when it comes to addressing wrongdoing and conduct detrimental to your brand, who the person is should not serve as an asset nor liability. The consequences should be the same, every time for everyone!

3. Every golfer wants to play well and win, but he/she would rather play well and lose following the rules than win violating them. Cheating to win would compromise the integrity of what winning should stand for. Each Sunday a Professional Golfer stands in the Winner’s circle and accepts a check and trophy which represents the lowest score and best player of the tournament. What it also means is every score for every hole was played by the rules and the highest of ethical standards.

Business Implication: In business, no producer or business unit should achieve its targets or goals by compromising the integrity of what the targets or goals stand for. Your mission statement must mean what it says and your brand must say what it means. Never trade the integrity of both for results that are not reflective of who you are and what you stand for as a company.

4. A power question that is asked of The Game of Golf is, “Who’s the most honest golfer?” The answer is, with few exceptions, all of them!

Business: When asked this question of Business, it’s easy to name who is the highest producer, but how easy is it to name the most honest high producer? In light of today’s culture, history has shown that it’s not often all of them, but shouldn’t it be?

5. In golf, even on the rare occasion when one is intentionally dishonest or unintentionally fails to observe a rule, others feel it is their responsibility to report the violator. Each player owns the responsibility of protecting the integrity of the Game as well as protecting the field of participants. Each scorecard is a certification of the accuracy of the recorded score, all rules were observed and proper golf etiquette was followed.

Business Perspective: Within your Company, what is the climate associated with misconduct? Does unreported misconduct outside of approved business processes impact your CEO’s certification of your financial statement or regulatory certifications? One unreported incident has the power to compromise the integrity of your financial statement, regulatory certifications, weaken your processes, and ultimately your brand.

6. In golf, the rules drive the integrity of the culture. Each time a rule is broken a penalty is assessed. The person who has the lowest score is deemed the best golfer for that day but what’s more  important is the honesty and integrity the score represents. When a round of golf is over, every player should submit a good, clean and honest scorecard....no exceptions!

Business perspective: In Business each company has an approved way of doing business. Never overlook infractions to your approved way of doing business or allow people to break them on a daily basis or even when a competitive business promotion is in place. The winner should represent an effort and accomplishment that reflects the highest level of integrity.

7. Tell the truth: In golf there are options and opportunities other than telling the truth, but none are good. A high value is placed on telling the truth and being known as one who will be truthful to the rules even when the stakes are high and no one else observes the violation. To not be truthful is the most fatal error in golf. Other players will seldom trust you and your cheating will become public knowledge. Cheating once, is often viewed as continuous cheating because the future opportunity to do so is always there because of the honor system that Golf is based on. The typical golfer will “self-report” when a rule is knowingly violated, even though the penalty remains the same. Self-reporting elevates self-respect and renders one of the highest levels of integrity in all of sports.

Business perspective: In business, when reviewing a Code of Conduct violation or conducting an integrity review analysis, your inquiry must determine the “root cause” of the infraction. Questions that determine the root cause are: Is the misconduct knowledge driven? Is there a skill deficiency? What was the intent? Did the violator self-report? Once cheating takes place in business, the question is always, on what other occasions have you cheated? Make being truthful your first and only response. You’ll have other options but none are good.

8. When playing golf, respecting the rules and playing by them is less an expectation and more of a given. In Golf, the expectation that every golfer will engage and play the game at the highest ethical level has transitioned from an expectation to a given.

Business perspective: Establish Fair, Consistent, Ethical, Non-Compromising Business, Expectations of Engagement, and Conduct. Once expectations are communicated, personally owned, ingrained in your culture and properly addressed when misconduct occurs, expectations become a given.

9. The rules are shared, owned and embraced by every participant, official and fan. If broken, anyone who observes a broken rule can report it and, if verified, actions are taken. When the violation is presented to the player, he or she explains their actions, and if wrong, consensus is achieved and the player accepts the penalty. There is no such thing as an appeals process due to the commitment of playing the game the right way.

Business perspective: Your Compliance and Ethics Department do not own compliance and ethics, they are owned by the culture. The function of your Compliance and Ethics Department is to facilitate the processes that protect the integrity of your Company Brand. When misconduct occurs, empower your Compliance department to facilitate and own your company approved integrity resolution process. The role of other business partners should be to provide the facts and offer perspective but never with the intent of dictating the outcome. Stay true to your process!

10. In Golf, the phrase, “You have the honors” means, it’s your turn to play. But more importantly it means one has the privilege of honoring its institutional and historical integrity by playing the Game the “Right Way.” The history of the game and its ethical standards set the tone and climate for one’s conduct during play. For this game, everyone truly has the honor of being on the “Right Side of  History!”

Business perspective: When working for your customers, being employed by your company, or having a career, look at it as an honor and privilege to engage at the highest level of ethical standards. You “have the honors” every day to set the tone and climate for your conduct associated with establishing a good, clean honest brand for your company by doing business the “Right Way!”

Now that the lessons have been shared, how will you incorporate this level of ethics and integrity into your company’s culture? It’s a decision on which your Compliance Department along with each business unit should take the lead. You must have the full support of your CEO and outside board. Every set of procedures, company approval and sales processes, integrity case review, and regulatory filings should measure up to the highest level of transparency and self-disclosure requirements. A complete integration of your Compliance and Ethics Program into every facet of your Culture will take your brand to the next level and have your company executing its game plan with the esteemed ethics of golf.