What Does a Compliance Officer Do?

Compliance officer taking notes in an office

Today, all types of organizations and businesses — from restaurants to pharmaceutical manufacturers — must comply with certain laws and regulations. These regulations are intended to protect public safety, such as by ensuring that medications are reasonably safe for their intended use and that all types of products don’t pose a risk of harm to consumers. The people who are responsible for ensuring that organizations stay within the rule of law are known as compliance officers.

Also called compliance specialists, these professionals play a vital role in the economy. But exactly what does a compliance officer do and what’s the process for how to become a compliance officer? This career guide answers your questions.

Compliance Officer Job Description Overview

At the turn of the 20th century, it became clear that there was a pressing need for laws to regulate businesses for the purpose of protecting public safety. The federal government stepped in to ensure that financial services, pharmaceuticals and meatpacking businesses did not present a risk of undue harm to the general public. In part, this trend was spurred by the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the muckraking novel that shed light on the unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry.1

Today, the laws and regulations that apply to organizations have grown quite complex, and it’s vital for businesses to stay compliant with the regulations that apply to them. It’s the job of compliance officers to ensure this happens. Some of the tasks that compliance specialists do include the following:

  • Research the latest regulations that apply to their industry and organization
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures with an eye toward keeping the organization in full compliance with all applicable regulations
  • Ensure the enforcement of compliance-related policies and procedures with respect to the organization’s facilities, services, processes and products
  • Conduct audits or investigations of suspected policy violations, and arrange for a third-party auditor when needed
  • Develop remediation plans in the aftermath of policy violations, and ensure that appropriate corrective actions are taken

Some compliance officers may need to build a brand new compliance program for a new company or a new branch at an established company. Others work on updating and maintaining existing compliance programs. In all cases, compliance officers strive to be proactive by preventing compliance violations, which is preferable to correcting violations after they have occurred.

Where Do Compliance Officers Work?

Because all sorts of organizations are governed by laws and regulations, compliance officers can find work across a diverse range of industries. Some industries are more heavily regulated than others, and as such, they need to hire many compliance officers. These include the following:

  • Financial services, including banks and financial advising firms
  • Healthcare delivery, administration, technology and health information
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturing
  • Biotechnology
  • Medical device manufacturing
  • Insurance

In addition to working for private companies, compliance officers also work for government agencies. For instance, local and state governments hire compliance officers to ensure that construction sites, including public works construction sites, follow building codes and relevant regulations. Federal government agencies also employ many compliance officers, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

How To Become a Compliance Officer

If the answer to the question, “What does a compliance officer do?” appeals to you, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your high school guidance counselor. Discuss your career goals and ask whether there are any relevant courses you could add to your schedule. Some good choices would be classes in government, law, business law, accounting and finance.

You’ll need to earn an undergraduate degree after high school. There is some flexibility regarding the type of degree you can earn, but a legal studies degree is a great choice.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, you should plan on earning a master’s degree. Although a graduate degree isn’t a strict, universal requirement, many employers do prefer it and you’re likely to find that you’re able to pursue more job opportunities with this advanced degree.

Earn a Relevant Undergraduate Degree

All aspiring compliance officers need an undergraduate degree, but there is no universal requirement regarding the type of bachelor’s degree you should earn. Many professionals have backgrounds in finance, accounting, business administration, law or justice studies/criminal justice. Law and criminal justice degrees can be particularly advantageous for compliance officers, because, after all, their role focuses predominantly on compliance with regulations.

If you do decide to earn a degree in government studies with an emphasis in law, you can expect to study topics such as the following: 

  • Philosophical foundations of law and ethics
  • Quantitative and qualitative methods of research in government and law
  • Public policymaking, as well as its applications and analysis
  • Civil law and the analytical techniques for resolving legal issues
  • Legal research, reasoning and analysis

Earn a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Although it’s possible to land a position in the field with just a bachelor’s degree, many employers do prefer to hire compliance officers who possess a master’s degree. In addition, earning a master’s degree might empower you to commanding a higher salary.

As with your bachelor’s degree, there is some flexibility regarding the type of master’s degree you can earn. A master’s degree in criminal justice is a great choice, particularly if you can choose a concentration in legal studies.

During your degree program, you’ll fine-tune your critical thinking and communication skills, and you’ll develop greater awareness of professional ethics and responsibility. Some of the specific topics you’re likely to study include the following:

  • The interrelatedness of law and socioeconomic issues, and the philosophical underpinnings of justice administration
  • Research competencies and methodological analysis of various topics in the modern justice environment
  • The practical applications of legal communication methods
  • Constitutional amendments and case law in criminal jurisprudence, including a look at constitutional rights
  • Organizational behavior and leadership within the criminal justice field

Some, but not all master’s degree programs require students to complete a master’s thesis. A master’s thesis is a research paper, typically about 40 to 80 pages in length that takes a deep dive into a specific topic in the field. Unlike doctoral students completing a dissertation, master’s degree students do not need to conduct original research for their master’s thesis.

Essential Skills and Characteristics for an Effective Compliance Officer

As you progress along the pathway toward a career as a compliance officer, you should keep in mind the skills and characteristics that are helpful for this position. These include the following:

  • Innovative thinking
  • Ethical judgment and problem-solving
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Communication skills
  • Research skills
  • Organization
  • Assertiveness

You can prepare to take the next step in your career pathway when you enroll in a master’s degree program at Grand Canyon University. In addition to our undergraduate programs in government and justice studies, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Master of Science in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Legal Studies degree program. Graduates will emerge with strong competencies in public policy, legal research and legal communication

Received from Study.com, "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair Intention & Inspiration in November 2022.


Approved by an Instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Dec. 13, 2022

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.