Good People Doing Bad Things: Compliance Regimes in Organizations

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Nearly all major corporations and many public agencies have established ethics and compliance departments, some of them as the result of penalties imposed by the US Dept. of Justice, others due to embarrassing scandals. The responsibilities of these ethics and compliance departments range from inculcating internal codes of conduct within the organization, preventing bribery in contracts, impeding litigation for harassment and bribes, or ensuring that government certifications and branch standards are followed. In the compliance officer’s understanding, breaches of ethics are not due to unethical persons; they are due to inadequate compliance training, i.e., good people doing bad things. This article, based on fieldwork in compliance training conferences, anti-corruption events and readings of ethics and compliance manuals, describes how a ‘culture of compliance’ is pursued in organizations. In the wake of continuing breaches of corporate ethics in banking, pharmaceuticals, telecoms, and minerals extraction, the obvious question is whether the ethics and compliance regimes are genuine efforts to ‘do the right thing’, or simply a façade to improve firm’ reputations. It is argued that compliance can be both real and fake, and that the role of the compliance function is to ensure where it is authentic and where it can be ignored. The moral skill set being called for by compliance and ethics regimes leads to employees having to navigate their way through new kinds of grey zones.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Legal Anthropology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Social Anthropology


  • Social Anthropology
  • business ethics
  • ethics and compliance
  • compliance
  • Organizations
  • organizational anthropology
  • anti-corruption
  • corruption
  • legal anthropology


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