How to Become a Compliance Officer

Business operations are required to follow all laws and regulatory requirements, both within company walls and in external operations. Compliance officers help businesses do this by staying up to date on federal, state, local and internal laws, bylaws and policies. Compliance officer is one title for those working within the field, however, other roles may include:

  • Environmental compliance inspector
  • Licensing examiner or inspector
  • Equal opportunity representative or officer
  • Government property inspector or investigator
  • Regulatory affairs specialist

Wondering how to become a compliance officer? Learn the typical job duties of compliance officers, salary outlook for compliance officers and the steps to becoming a compliance officer.

Steps to Become a Compliance Officer

The options to what a compliance officer can do are endless. If working as a compliance officer interests you, here’s how to become one.

Step 1: Determine a Field

Compliance officers work in all types of industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) occupation and wage report on compliance officers, the industries with the highest level of employment for compliance officers, ranked with 2018 employment numbers, were:

  • Federal executive branch: 56,980
  • State government, excluding schools and hospitals: 36,160
  • Local government, excluding schools and hospitals: 28,560
  • Management of companies and enterprises: 18,000
  • Credit intermediation and related activities: 10,440

Compliance officers work in health care, finance, higher education, corporate and government environments, among others. Depending on the customers or audience served by the organization, as well as entities the organization deals with—international business regulations, for example—the role and duties of a compliance officer can vary widely.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Your Field of Choice

Typically, a bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum education a compliance officer must have. There is no specific compliance officer degree. In many cases, people looking to pursue a compliance officer career will earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, finance or business.

If you choose to continue education, you may want to pursue a master’s degree in a program like a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) program.

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Other master’s programs to consider would be those in criminal justice, finance or business. Considering this, an aspiring compliance officer might choose to earn their bachelor’s degree in a program related to the field they want to work in (e.g., health care or finance) then expand their skill set with an MLS degree focused on compliance.

To become a compliance officer in health care, you may want to earn a bachelor’s degree in a health care–related field like nursing, health care administration or health care management. Health care compliance officers may need certifications.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Compliance officers should have intricate knowledge of the fields in which they work. They should know the inner workings of organization operations and how compliance relates to those. Getting work experience in a chosen area may help a professional move into a compliance role. Aspiring compliance officers may want to seek out opportunities to lead and manage since they’ll be doing that in an officer role.

Once you have a bachelor’s degree and are working at a company, if you’re not currently working in the compliance department, you can communicate to your manager that you are interested in working in compliance and ask what it takes to move into that department. You may be able to get on-the-job compliance experience in a lesser role as you make your way up to the title of compliance officer.

Step 4: Get Certifications and Continue Learning

Some compliance areas benefit from or require specific compliance certifications. There are organizations that will require the compliance officer to complete the Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional Program (CCEP) via the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE). The Ethics and Compliance Officer Association (ECOA), National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU), International Academy of Business and Financial Management (IABFM) and American Bankers Association (ABA) also offer compliance certifications.

If you want to grow your career as a compliance officer, higher education may be beneficial. There are several online master’s in legal studies programs focusing on compliance that you can take where you can learn and study on your own time. There are also master’s in compliance programs available.

If you’re currently working full-time and want to advance your career in compliance, ask your employer about what schools, programs or certifications they recommend. If you currently hold a bachelor’s degree, don’t work in compliance but want to, look for an MLS degree or graduate-level degree that’s compliance-focused so you have the education you need to enter the compliance field.

What Does a Compliance Officer Do?

Compliance officers typically provide in-house services that help businesses identify and mitigate legal and regulatory risk. According to the Robert Half’s compliance officer review, compliance officers may:

  • Design, implement, and monitor a company’s compliance program
  • Coordinate and comply with state and federal regulations and regulators
  • Create and coordinate reporting channels for compliance issues
  • Develop company compliance communications

Compliance officers may work for the organizations they’re reviewing or for external agencies or companies contracted to do compliance work.They may also lead a compliance team to help with handling these duties. Compliance officers typically have legal backgrounds since they must be experts on laws and regulations that affect the organizations they are employed in.

Compliance officers are common in a number of business settings, including health care, financial institutions, higher education and businesses. Their day-to-day duties may include everything from making sure safety measures meet relevant standards to making sure financial documents are prepared properly and submitted on time.

No matter where you want to work as a compliance officer, you may need to have strong ethical standards, a passion for learning new information, attention to detail and strong communication skills. Compliance officers lead others, so you’ll want to feel comfortable managing employees and inspiring those you lead to do their work effectively.

Compliance officers may deal with an array of people from top executives to the compliance professionals they manage to company representatives (who may also be customers).

For example, a compliance officer at a multilevel marketing company may start their day meeting with the chief executive officer and chief financial officer or the owner of the company. Then, they may hold a meeting with their team to discuss issues and regulation changes. They may also need to call an associate who sells the company products to communicate why the associate’s latest marketing campaign violated compliance efforts.

What Skills Does a Compliance Officer Need?

A compliance officer may find themselves dealing with influencer marketing campaigns and ensuring they’re compliant. Compliance officers who work for organizations that expand their services to other countries will need to work within international laws and regulations and may need to manage teams abroad.

Salary Outlook of Compliance Officers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2019 national mean annual wage for compliance officers was $72,850. There were an estimated 317,600 workers in compliance officer roles in the United States, with the highest 10% of compliance officers earning an average annual wage of $109,950.

Higher education also affects salary. According to a BLS report on how educational attainment affects earnings, the median weekly earnings for those with a master’s degree were $1,497 in 2019, compared to $1,248 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

According to the BLS, employment for compliance officers is strong in many areas across the United States, with location quotients well above one in many areas, which indicates the occupation has a higher share of employment than average.

Get an MLS to Help Grow Your Career in Compliance

Compliance officers are typically higher-ranking roles within organizations. They often work with C-suite executives, and some compliance officers even move into C-suite roles like chief financial officer.

If you want to become a compliance officer, proper education and work experience are essential. With a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue work in a lower-level compliance role now, such as risk analyst.

Getting an MLS in compliance shows your employer you’re serious about growing your compliance career. An MLS degree may help you achieve a higher compliance position where you currently work or at your dream company.

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Last updated: February 2021