1. Career Guides

How to Become a Compliance Officer: A Comprehensive Guide

Published on: Jun 28, 2024

A compliance officer is hired by a company to ensure the firm complies with all regulatory and legal requirements. These regulations may be external laws imposed by the United States or foreign governments or internal policies and bylaws.

The compliance officer must be part lawyer, investigator, and diplomat as they navigate the internal and external politics of regulatory compliance and corporate affairs. Since noncompliance can cost a corporation millions of dollars in fines or even loss of licensing, the compliance officer fills a critical role in company operations.

A compliance officer can be found in every industry, from healthcare and construction to energy production and securities trading. In this article, we’ll review the typical job description, how to become a compliance officer and the value of compliance certification in various fields.

What is the Role of a Compliance Officer?

All industries and businesses are regulated to some degree. Oil and natural gas companies must comply with environmental laws. Healthcare businesses must follow privacy and legal rules. Safety regulations cover businesses from daycare centers to heavy construction.

A company does not have to be a Fortune 100 corporation or a multinational to need a compliance officer. Regulatory compliance is essential for every company. A compliance officer in a corporation ensures that corporate filings are complete and filed with the correct government agency on time. Large companies have compliance programs staffed with multiple officers so that each department complies with regulations.

In healthcare, insurance regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) mean that patient records and other documents must be stored in accordance with state and federal guidelines. Healthcare compliance is particularly critical because patients have grounds for medical malpractice suits in cases of regulatory non-compliance. The healthcare compliance officer must keep track of rapidly changing laws as new rules emerge from Washington.

Corporate compliance is an important job in any field. Compliance managers are in high demand in corporate offices and civil service. Compliance professionals can also be found in smaller businesses, ranging from construction companies to school administration.

Responsibilities of a Compliance Officer

A compliance officer ensures regulatory compliance, but how do they do that? The specific requirements will depend on the industry you’re working in, whether it’s healthcare, finance, or energy, but the basic job description of a compliance officer might look like this:

  • Maintain, update, and disseminate lists of industry-specific regulations and laws

  • Develop, implement, and monitor a compliance program designed to maintain compliance with industry-specific regulations

  • Establish, review, and monitor a company-wide internal system for compliance risk assessment

  • Develop an industry-compliant auditing plan and cooperate with all external industry audits

  • Attend seminars and workshops to ensure the company is current on regulations and compliance requirements

  • Monitor the company for compliance issues and correct as necessary

If the compliance officer must build and operate a compliance department or work within an existing department, there are five critical tasks the department should perform:

  • Identify existing compliance risks

  • Provide instructions for preventing compliance failure

  • Control violations and uncover intentional non-compliance

  • Find solutions for unintentional non-compliance

  • Advise staff on compliance policies and update on regulatory affairs

Career Path and Educational Requirements

A compliance officer position is not an entry-level slot. You will need a four-year degree for a compliance officer position. To move up in a company as a compliance manager, you may need a law degree, an MBA, or an MLS. Most companies want a four-year degree to hire a compliance officer, and if you want a higher-level position like a compliance manager job, you may need a law degree or MBA. Note that in some companies a compliance officer and manager may be the same position.

A good place to start on becoming a compliance officer is to decide on a specialization. Every field needs compliance officers, so you should begin with a four-year degree in a field that interests you. For instance, if you plan to specialize in environmental regulation, you may need a biology, environmental science, or geology degree. 

If you intend to work in healthcare regulation or corporate compliance, you should consider an MLS or other legal studies degree with a healthcare specialization. These areas involve a lot of legal jargon and an understanding of contracts and government codes. For example, a healthcare compliance officer must know how to spot a HIPAA violation, correct it, and develop a method to avoid such mistakes.

Seek career advice from someone already in the field. Compliance analysts can be found in city government code enforcement and OSHA offices. Don't hesitate to ask if you can shadow one of their agents for a day and ask questions about the job. They can tell you the difference between government and corporate jobs, although they may be biased towards the civil sector.

Certification and Qualifications

Certification is an optional step to become a compliance officer.

However, many employers may want you to have certifications before extending a final employment offer. Your marketability is enhanced if you have certification before you start your job search.

Most certification programs offer intensive programs in a particular specialization and offer or require membership in a monitoring organization like those mentioned below to maintain certification. These organizations keep lists of active members and any continuing education requirements. Membership with these organizations gives you access to their job boards and workshops. You can use these to improve your knowledge base and increase your employability. These certifications help demonstrate your dedication to your career and specialization. 

The Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) offers the Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional Program (CCEP). This certification demonstrates knowledge of compliance procedures and an ability to explain and instruct these policies to others.

Other industry-related certifications you should consider include:

Other industries have compliance certifications and specializations.OSHA certifications are available for anyone who completes the requisite training program, and can be valuable for those in the construction, energy, and maritime industries.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Compliance Officer

If you intend to become a compliance officer, you need to have or develop core competencies. Although you’ll be working for a corporation you must have a strong ethical commitment to regulatory compliance, high ethical standards, and good knowledge of the relevant laws in your industry. Although your specific job skills depend on your particular industry, you must have:

  • Outstanding communication skills. You must be able to translate legal and regulatory jargon to employees, management, and corporate officers clearly and effectively.

  • Analytical ability. You should be able to spot compliance risks before there is a violation and create effective solutions quickly.

  • Attention to detail and multi-tasking ability. As regulations change and laws are amended, you should be able to spot possible involuntary noncompliance issues and correct them before they happen. Be prepared to go to your managers and say, “This is going to happen, and this could be an issue, and I think this is how we can prevent it from happening.”

  • Leadership and team-building abilities. You must be able to work with other departments and corporate agencies to ensure compliance from top to bottom in the company. You should also be able to take charge and prevent cans from being kicked down the road when nobody wants to decide.

  • Integrity and ethics. Compliance regulation managers often find themselves caught between corporate profits and corporate compliance. You are the one who must explain that cutting corners around regulations now means heavy fines when the auditors show up in the fall.

Common Questions About Becoming a Compliance Officer

Becoming a compliance officer is not a common career path. As a result, there are many frequently asked questions about how to get started in this interesting and lucrative career.

  • Do you need a certification to get a job as a compliance officer? You do not need a certification to get a job as a compliance officer, but it will improve your career prospects. In many fields, especially healthcare, you may need a specific certification to advance or be hired for management positions.

  • What kind of experience is needed to become a healthcare compliance officer? You should have experience in healthcare, regulatory compliance, or a similar field. Experts recommend you not go into healthcare compliance without knowledge of regulations, healthcare auditing, investigations, and violation corrections.

  • Do you need to go to law school to become a compliance officer? You do not need a law degree to become a compliance officer, but most experts recommend some knowledge of the legal field. You should be familiar with legal terminology and regulatory language.

  • What degree should I pursue for a career as a compliance analyst? Compliance analyst is not an entry-level position. You should plan on a two- or four-year degree to become a compliance analyst. A degree in your specialization is ideal, although you do not need an advanced or post-graduate degree. If you want a management or CCO (Chief Compliance Officer) position, you may need an MBA.

  • What are the main differences between a compliance officer and a risk officer? A risk officer is tasked with assessing and reducing all risks that may impact the company, including competitive risks, product liability, IT breaches, etc. The compliance officer’s only concern is regulatory compliance. The jobs may intersect since IT breaches involve regulatory violations, liability, legal regulation, etc.

  • What are the career prospects for compliance officers? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), compliance officers have solid career prospects, with a growth rate of about 5% annually, slightly more than the national average. Information services, IT, and aerospace most need compliance officers, and growth states include California, Arizona, and Texas.

  • How long does it take to become a compliance officer? You will not need to put your life on pause while getting a four-year degree. You can begin working in a desired company or your field of choice while getting your bachelor’s. For instance, if you plan on becoming a healthcare regulator, start working in hospital administration to have experience with the forms you’ll handle as a compliance officer. Getting some experience and starting on your certifications can give you a head start when it’s time to apply for your desired job.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Compliance Field

Once you’re working as a compliance officer, part of your job involves staying current with regulatory changes. Sometimes, these happen seemingly overnight, without much notice. Federal and state agencies must have a public comment period for any new regulation. You will get these notices and be advised by your superiors of upcoming changes.

Once you’ve established yourself in your company and developed your reputation for spotting compliance issues and managing compliance risks, you may have other opportunities for advancement. Large corporations have compliance managers in each department or subsidiary. If your company has international offices, the job of overseas regulation can be a job for a highly skilled regulatory manager. A Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) oversees all regulatory compliance for the entire corporation. These positions are rare except in large corporations.

The Future of Compliance

Current job trends for compliance professionals, besides the reliable healthcare industry, are information technology and cybersecurity. International compliance requirements, such as the EU GDPR (General Data Protection Requirements), are also prevalent in the United States.

Since the early days of the internet, technology tools for compliance have lagged far behind the regulations to keep businesses from leaking customer data, which have been outstripped by hackers and data thieves. Regulatory requirements update daily, so an IT compliance officer must be at the top of their game to ensure their company is current on regulatory affairs.

Steps to Start Your Career as a Compliance Officer

To become a compliance officer, your first step should be gathering career advice from as many sources as possible. Network with compliance professionals on LinkedIn or Facebook to get information on the different types of certifications and entry-level jobs you can acquire. Then, follow a few basic steps.

  • Review your skill set

    Which areas are your weakest, and which are your strongest? If you can communicate well but aren’t a good manager, try some online courses like Udemy’s “Communication Skills Every Manager Should Master” or free management courses on Skillshare. If you’re weak in understanding legalese, consider a paralegal course. Udemy and Coursera have free classes in legal writing and legal terminology that will assist with understanding all the jargon.

  • Determine your niche

    You cannot be “a compliance officer.”

    You need to specialize. What industry interests you the most? If you like working with the environment, many sub-industries need compliance officers. Determine what specialty appeals to you.

  • Start working on your bachelor’s degree

    You might do all three of these at the same time.

  • Get professional training

    Internships and volunteer work can help narrow down your area of expertise. These experiential learning opportunities can also help you determine what you don’t want to do before you commit to a job in the wrong area.

  • Join national associations

    Obtaining certifications before you apply enhances your resume and demonstrate you’re serious about becoming a compliance professional. These organizations usually have job boards and professional development workshops for their members.

Closing Thoughts

Compliance officers are well-paid and sought-after professionals in today’s job market. If you’re willing to work to obtain the education and extra certifications, the business and healthcare industry needs people who can keep them compliant with federal, state, and local regulations and protect their client's and stakeholders’ interests.

If you’re a good communicator, detail-oriented, and like to keep up with the law, the compliance officer job may be for you. Visit the professional organizations linked here, join their networks, and sign up for courses in this rewarding and interesting field.

About the Authors

Written by:

Susan Buckner, Esq.

Susan Buckner has a J.D. from Whittier Law School. She’s a contributing author to FindLaw.com with over 350 published articles. Susan has been a legal writer and content provider for five years. She works with numerous online legal content agencies.

Susan worked with Whittier’s Family and Children’s Law Clinic as a junior editor with the Family and Children’s Law Journal from 2009-2011. After law school, she volunteered as a mediator with the Orange County Superior Court, with a 77% settlement rate.

Susan worked as a paralegal for solo attorneys in California and Florida. Her legal experience ranges from contract law to personal injury law, with a specialization in family and disability law. She has written on every legal topic, from contracts to intellectual property. She is also a published fiction and nonfiction author.

Susan lives and works in Southern California.

Susan Buckner, Esq.


Education: Whittier Law School, JD

Knowledge: Contract Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning