Starting a career in compliance - Part 1

Written by Dave Robson on Thursday August 1, 2019

There’s a whole world of professional paths out there. Yet a lot of kids seem to dream of the same options: ‘when I grow up I want to be a vet, doctor, firefighter, police officer’.

These are all admirable options, but not many say ‘I want to work in compliance’. Not yet, anyway.

The funny thing is, when you ask 18 year-olds, many of them do know what compliance is. And many would also like to know how they can get into it. The image of compliance has shifted seismically – from a business inhibiter to an enabler, front and centre of commercially-crucial decisions.

We get asked a lot what compliance is like as a career. So we thought we’d share some of our own perspectives, give an overview of the current state of play, and share some thoughts on how to tell if you’d like it.

We’re going to start with that personal perspective. (Oh and by the way, I’m using compliance as a catch all to include both regulatory and financial crime compliance. Just so you know).

How we got into a career in compliance: the ICA R&D Team

Writer’s privilege means I go first. I ended up in compliance pretty much by accident. I left Uni in 1997 and at the time, the SIB/PIA (forerunners of the FSA in the UK) review of Personal Pension sales was kicking off. I needed a job. My mum lined me up an interview (she really wanted me out of the house – sorry mum). They asked me if I knew what a regulator was. I did (Ofcom, Ofwat – but not financial services) and I got the job. One of the jobs anyway. There was a massive recruitment drive at that time.

So without realising it, I was working in compliance risk. Not compliance per se (the second line of defence as we’d call it today). But I knew of the compliance dept. They seemed to wield a mystic power. When they said do something, everyone did it. I thought that seemed pretty cool.

To cut a long story short, the Pension Review eventually ended. The low-cost endowment scandal was next. I moved to a compliance department in a different firm to work on complaint handling and then advice quality monitoring. ‘Properly’ in compliance. I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Here’s what the rest of the team had to say. You’ll see a theme emerge I think.

Simone Jones, Senior R&D Manager

I started working in an in-house legal team and, due to an internal shuffle, I moved into a compliance role. It was a small team which had responsibility for all compliance, data protection and financial crime.

I really enjoyed the AML side and eventually moved internally to a central AML team that had oversight of the Hong Kong, Luxembourg and UK businesses. I eventually moved internally again to the position of Deputy MLRO for a UK firm.

Jason Morris, R&D Manager

I was working in an admin role at a financial services network and was chatting to the manager of the risk assessment department who was recruiting into his team. The role sounded interesting as it involved meeting advisers and validating quite strict financial advice practises.

He encouraged me to apply – so I did. And I got the role. I learned a huge amount during that time, and found that some of my instinctive working traits were well suited to a compliance role.

Holly Whitehead, R&D Manager

I first became interested in fraud after being trained on fraud detection (where you deal with calls from customers that have had a block put on their card after a suspect transaction has taken place) when working in a debit card call centre.

I was then seconded for two weeks to the fraud department, as they were short-staffed, to help with some admin work – that’s when I realised how fascinating the world of financial crime is. So, as soon as a job opportunity opened up there, I applied. I got the job as Debit Card Fraud Investigator, and the rest is history!

Key themes

There are quite a few key themes running through the above. Here are six which leap out:

  1. None of us actually planned to get into compliance
  2. We started ‘in the business’ (first line, essentially)
  3. We liked the sound of compliance
  4. We took a chance as it came our way
  5. We thought it was in-line with what interested us. Professionally, certainly, personally – well, probably that too
  6. It seemed congruent with our skill sets

All of this means we came from a similar position to many of the people we speak to on a regular basis: from non-compliance roles within the business. And as we tend to find even now, this represents a key access point to compliance roles.

Why is this? Fundamentally, understanding the business (in terms of operations, collaboration and risk management) is a great leap frog into compliance. Reflecting on my earlier point – what better way is there to add value to a business than to understand how it works and its commercial objectives?

The skills set aspect is a particularly interesting one too. What sort of skill set do you need to work in compliance? And how does that align to some of the opportunities and the roles?

That’s something we’ll explore in Part 2 of this piece, along with current opportunities and possible openings. In the meantime, if you have a story you’d like to share about how you got into compliance, please get in touch with us at

If you're keen to start your career in compliance, register for one of our free briefing sessions to find out what options are available and what would be your next steps. 


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