Thomas Topolski featured on Compliance & Ethics Professional magazine

Executive Vice President and Director of Infrastructure for North America Thomas Topolski has been featured on the June 2018 issue of Compliance & Ethics Professional magazine.

Thomas was interviewed by Diana Trevely on behalf of the Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics (SCCE). For more information, see: https://www.corporatecompliance.org/

The interview has been replicated, with permission, below:

Meet Thomas Topolski

Thomas Topolski (thomas.topolski@turntown.com) is Executive Vice President and Director of Infrastructure for North America at Turner & Townsend in Houston, TX. He was interviewed in March 2018 by Diana Trevley (dianatrevley@sparkcompliance.com), West Coast Director at Spark Compliance Consulting in Atlanta, GA.

DT: Tom, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you give us some background on your career in the engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) industry?

TT: I started my career in the EPC industry in New York while I was completing my master’s degree at NYU. My first job was in 1983. I was hired by Vollmer Associates in New York. The pivotal point in my career came when Bechtel offered me an opportunity in Saudi Arabia. What was originally planned as a two-year assignment in the Middle East stretched into a total of 12 years in various positions in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. I returned to the U.S. between 2004 and 2008, then moved back to the Middle East in 2008. I stayed through 2015, and then I was promoted to president of Louis Berger International (LBI) and moved to the international headquarters in Paris. I led the relocation of LBI’s headquarters to London in July of 2016, right about the time of Brexit. (I referred to our move as Brenter!) In July 2017, I returned to the U.S. to work with Turner & Townsend, helping the company to expand their presence in the North American infrastructure market.

Working in the EPC industry provided me with an opportunity to travel the world, to experience cultures, and to be involved with incredible projects, many of which were first-of-its-kind and one-of-a-kind projects. I’ve been able to play a role in the explosive growth in the Middle East, having been involved in groundbreaking projects such as the Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia, the Warner Brothers Theme Park in Abu Dhabi, and the Doha Metro in Qatar, to name just a few. I have also had the opportunity to support projects in Asia-Pacific, India, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. With hard work and the right mindset, you can have a wonderful career in the EPC industry and leave a lasting legacy on the built environment.

DT: From an executive leadership perspective, why is ethics and compliance important in your industry?

TT: In the EPC industry it is absolutely essential to have strong ethical values and to live by those values. The EPC industry is recognized for its commitment to health, safety, and the environment, and I believe that we need to treat ethics, integrity, and compliance with the same level of importance and commitment.

We are responsible for designing and building facilities that the world uses every day. Whether it’s a bridge with thousands of daily vehicle crossings or a water system providing clean water to a city with millions of people, infrastructure — and anything in the built environment — that we often take for granted must be designed and built without any shortcuts. It’s been proven throughout the world that corruption can lead to shoddy construction, which can lead to deaths and destruction.

Compliance and ethics are also essential from an economic perspective. Your word is your bond. Your clients, employees, partners, and the public must be able to trust the company and, as an extension, the products or services that you sell. When a company is caught doing the wrong thing, it is usually not one incident in isolation; rather, it is often a symptom of a larger problem. As such, this becomes an issue for the investors, because enormous amounts of resources — time and money — must be poured into solving the issue rather than creating shareholder value.

DT: You attended the SCCE’s European Compliance & Ethics Institute (ECEI) in Prague last April and gave a talk with Eric Feldman from AMI. You were probably the only major company executive in attendance. Can you tell us about your experience at the conference and what you took away from it.

TT: It was amazing. I think the most shocking experience was when several of the conference participants came up to me at the start of the second day, expressing surprise that I was still there! They explained that CEOs/presidents typically make an appearance at the conference and do not attend the entire program. I think many of the participants were genuinely surprised, but also appreciative of my commitment. It’s probably as close as I’ve ever come to feeling like a rock star!

All joking aside, I am truly thankful that Eric Feldman of Affiliated Monitors Inc. (AMI) introduced me to SCCE and asked me to co-present with him at the ECEI in Prague last year and more recently in Frankfurt. I truly believe that every C-suite executive would benefit — as would their organizations — with active engagement with the SCCE.

DT: Based on your experience working with many companies within the EPC industry, what do you believe drives ethical behavior in a company?

TT: In my experience, ethical behavior (or lack thereof) in the workplace is a culture more than a series of policies and procedures; it is truly in the DNA of the company. I have had the good fortune to have worked for many leaders and companies that exhibited an unwavering commitment to integrity and ethical behavior. The intent has to be sincere and passionate. People are perceptive, and they can easily tell if a commitment to ethics is perfunctory and if certain behaviors are excused with a wink and a nod.

Of course, a company must have robust ethics and compliance policies and procedures, ongoing training, and strong internal controls testing/auditing. However, operating in a manner where the little things are ignored or accepted can and will compromise all the good that even the best ethics and compliance programs seek to achieve. It has to be clear — just as with health and safety — that the commitment to ethics and compliance is resolute.

One of my proudest moments was when I was in the Middle East and a very significant corruption scandal was uncovered shortly after 9/11. Virtually every company working in the subject country had leadership questioned, detained, and in some cases imprisoned. I was proud that, despite our significant presence in the country, my company at the time (Parsons) did not have any of our people involved in the scandal. To me that demonstrated that our team, from top to bottom, understood and believed in our core values related to integrity and ethical behavior. Companies often use the “rogue employee” when things go wrong; however, I think you’re much less likely to have a rogue employee when you have a visible and unrelenting culture of integrity and compliance at every level of the organization.

It sounds simple, but it really does boil down to walking the walk.

DT: What are some ways that top management can show their commitment to compliance and ethics?

TT: There are countless ways that executives can show their commitment to ethical conduct. Some examples are the willingness to walk away from a highprofile project opportunity if there is a hint of corruption, “firing” clients who exhibit behaviors that are not consistent with your core values, and enforcing disciplinary actions on employees who have committed unethical behavior — no matter their position and tenure with the company. A company must make sure that if someone very senior is reported for allegations of misconduct, they are treated the same way as middle management and employees would be. An employee needs to know that if they blow a whistle, it will not be just a perfunctory check-the-box, slap on the wrist exercise or, even worse, that retaliatory measures may be taken against them.

A company should make clear that integrity and transparency are more important than getting work or selling a product. It’s important that employees know — with certainty — that they will have support if they walk from a project or deal where they are being asked to do something illegal or unethical.

DT: How can companies incentivize ethical behavior?

TT: Managers should not be incentivized by financial aspects alone. Ethical behavior, providing leadership, mentoring employees — all these things should also factor into remuneration. If a company doesn’t consider those types of things when looking at bonuses and promotions, then how important are those things to the company, really?

Optics matter. Managers and employees, even those who are very senior, should not be getting bonuses or promotions when they have violated or been complicit in violating the company’s values.

DT: What type of communications from top management have you found to be most effective?

TT: Top executives need to speak up about the company’s core values. Everyone should know exactly what they are. When the importance of those values is delivered in a clear, passionate way, employees either get onboard with it or they leave. And this message — it has to be unambiguous — has to be binary.

In-person discussions are incredibly effective. When I was at Louis Berger, I introduced “ethics and compliance moments” to group meetings. We began meetings with a health and safety moment, so it was a natural extension to take that time to also discuss ethical behavior. I would ask someone to provide the group with an ethical or compliance dilemma they had been faced with and how they handled it. At first, people were very nervous and wanted to do something very generic and very textbook, so I would start a discussion about events in the news. The scandal with FIFA was something that got a lot of conversations going. And over time, people became more open, and the discussions became quite valuable.

Town hall lunches also work well. Food gets people talking a little bit more.

DT: What are your thoughts on how to engage middle management in supporting compliance and ethics?

TT: In my experience I have found that the “tone at the top” does indeed inform the “mood in the middle.” It goes back to some of the things I noted earlier (e.g., visible application and enforcement of the policies and procedures; walking away from projects, clients, and possibly even markets).

DT: What advice do you have for management and compliance officers if their company experiences an investigation or prosecution for a compliance violation?

TT: That’s a great question. Take responsibility.

My previous company addressed a False Claims Act (FCA) violation by taking accountability and reviewing its operations more broadly. The review of that company’s operations uncovered Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations, which the company self-reported to the Department of Justice (DOJ). I joined the company after the FCA and FCPA events, but I played an integral role in the reform of the business and attended meetings with the DOJ to address questions and demonstrate our commitment to integrity, compliance, and ethics. During our meetings, we were very forthright and didn’t attempt to hold anything back.

I heard afterwards that the DOJ appreciated our candor and our way of approaching the meetings. These experiences reinforced my view that it is important to be as forthright and sincere as you can and not try to “finesse” your answers. Investigators are trained to be perceptive, and they are very good at detecting when people are not being honest or are trying to manipulate the system; of course, they don’t appreciate it. Basically, the investigation will be prolonged, perhaps exacerbated. As they say, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime.

DT: Many compliance officers feel frustrated with the support for their compliance programs. What suggestions do you have for compliance officers who are having difficulty getting top management’s buy-in?

TT: Another old adage, “Save a nickel, spend a dime.” You should strive for and want to be known as an ethical company with integrity for its own sake, but there is also a financial incentive as well.

I think compliance or integrity officers need to hit the Board hard with very specific examples of how failing to have an effective compliance program has harmed a company, particularly examples in the industry in which the organization operates. There have been many behemoths in every industry that can be used as examples of what can happen to companies that do not invest in and support their compliance programs and departments. A compliance violation brings with it huge fines, legal costs, marketing and public relations costs, lawsuits, lost opportunities, decreased employee morale and productivity, and long-lasting reputational damage.

And then there are longer-term costs. Customers and clients want to give business to companies that are ethical and operate with integrity. Companies dealing with legal or compliance violations suffer in the due diligence and vetting process. When large corporations look at a company with compliance issues, they often see the organization as tainted and are reluctant to team up with them. And that is something that doesn’t go away quickly or easily. In all industries people talk to each other, and they even gossip about the misfortune of other organizations.

It can also affect your ability to hire and retain the most talented people. In the end, everyone wants to be proud to hand out their business card.

DT: What advice do you have for a compliance officer who might not have the support of management and feels as if they have just been given a perfunctory role within the company? Is it better to leave?

TT: You have to try first. If you have the opportunity, I think you owe it to the company and to yourself to try your best before deciding to move on.

DT: From a practical standpoint, how can multinational companies combat corruption when, in certain regions and sectors, the attitude is still that “this is how business is done”?

TT: It is essential to train your employees in those regions and sectors that, regardless of how business is done, your company conducts business in accordance with the law and with transparency. I’ve seen situations where employees believe that they would be playing a Robin Hood role if they paid bribes to officials in poorer countries. But that’s violating the trust of the company’s investors, business partners, and customers, as well as putting the company and its employees in a precarious position. The message must be clear that there is no tolerance for corrupt and illegal behavior or for employees who do not want to follow company policies and procedures.

On a more macro level, companies can try to work with the commercial sector of the home country’s embassy or consulate to encourage transparency. In some cases a local chamber of commerce can have influence. However, in the end, if winning business in a particular area is not possible to do in an ethical or transparent manner, then you have to take the decision to exit the region or sector. Companies cannot afford to waste time and resources if they cannot sell their services and/or products on merit with full transparency and are exposing themselves to significant legal and reputational risks. In some cases it may be wise to stay close and wait for change before entering into a particular section. I think India is a very good example of where significant efforts are being made to make the environment more transparent.

DT: Having worked over a long period in the Middle East, have you seen the attitude toward compliance and ethics change at all?

TT: Absolutely; the global anticorruption climate is changing. There is a much greater focus on anticorruption globally, and enforcement of violations is increasing.

At the same time, companies have become much less likely to look the other way when there are ethical violations. A recent example is an instance in Abu Dubai at a large firm. An employee who was very well-respected in the company and the industry engaged in a significant ethical violation. The company took decisive and appropriate action and terminated him. And what is really positive is that no one else in the industry has taken him on, given his prior conduct. I think years ago that the allegations would have been brushed aside and not looked into; perhaps the whistleblower, particularly in that part of the world, would have been fired or ostracized or brushed aside. And that’s just one example of many.

DT: This year you attended the ECEI in Frankfurt and again presented with Eric Feldman from AMI. Did you retain your rock star status?

TT: Maybe not to the same extent, but certainly more than I’m accustomed to! All joking aside, I am absolutely delighted to be a member of SCCE, and I feel a responsibility to encourage other executives to join and contribute. I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge since joining and expanding my professional network.

DT: Can we expect to see you at the next ECEI?

TT: Absolutely; you’re stuck with me now! I feel strongly that I gain much from my participation, and I think my experience provides a valuable perspective to discussions.

DT: We all look forward to seeing you there! Thank you very much for sharing your insights with us and for providing the compliance community with a shining example of true leadership.