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Seven Questions with an Ethics & Compliance Officer: Ellen Hunt



Q1. How long have you been working in the ethics and compliance field?

When I really think about it, always. As a lawyer, clients would come to me for advice, and while the law tells us what we can’t do, I always asked my clients to consider the ethical considerations of their decisions. In 2004, it seemed a natural transition from legal counsel to ethics and compliance.

Q2. What did you want to be growing up?

I have always wanted to help people, so at first I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but then I learned that I would have to go to medical school. Then I wanted to be a lawyer.

Q3. What are some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job? 

The most rewarding is helping people come to a solution that meets the needs of everyone involved. The most challenging is when there is no answer that satisfies everyone and someone will not be able to proceed in the way that they want.

Q4. What are three important traits a Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer should possess? 

Mental agility, independence, and empathy. I think that it’s important for Chief Ethics and Compliance Officers to be able to think through ethical issues in new ways and consider all of the possibilities. Independence is key because your opinions and decisions must be as objective as possible, even when it might mean that you could suffer or have to take additional steps because of them. If you believe, like I do, that most people want to do the right thing and are truly trying to do the best job possible, you must have empathy. It’s important so that you can understand their point of view and where they are coming from.

Q5. If someone wanted to get more involved in promoting ethical behavior in their organization, what could they do? 

In Scott Killingsworth’s article Modeling the Message, he talks about salience; when something is prominent, important, and noticeable. His point is that the way to promote ethical behavior is to make it top of mind so that it is a lens that everyone looks through. To do this, you have to talk about it.

We need to talk about the ethical implications of our actions in our staff meetings and with each other. When we decide not to charge an expense to the company, or recuse ourselves from a decision, or not participate in an activity, we need to tell people why and lead by example.

Q6. What advice would you give to recent college graduates and other professionals who may want to pursue a career in ethics and compliance? 

I recently had the pleasure of being a guest lecturer at the University of Illinois College of Law and I passed along this quote from Thomas Jefferson: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

This speaks to the trait of having mental agility, but I think that it’s really important to know when you can be flexible and when you shouldn’t be.

Q7. What is the best advice that someone has ever given you?

Indra Nooyra, the CEO of Pepsi, answered this question in Fortune magazine this way. She said that her father taught her to always assume positive intent. It struck me when I read it and I remember it to this day. It’s important for Chief Ethics & Compliance Officers, and for all of us, to really try to understand where other people are coming from. As humans we all sometimes like to think the worst rather than giving others the benefit of the doubt. You will learn more, understand more, and gain more by being open to others.


Ellen Hunt is the Senior Vice President, Audit, and Ethics and Compliance Officer at AARP. Ellen was featured as a Top Mind by Compliance Week in June of 2016 and named as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders for Trustworthy Business in 2018 and for the last three years by Trust Across America.

In addition to being responsible for the day-to-day operations for the ethics and compliance program for AARP, she has recently taken on responsibility for their internal audit function. She is a lawyer with extensive experience in designing, implementing, and operating ethics and compliance programs, including board governance and reporting, designing ethics education, managing enterprise risk processes; as well as handling investigations and regulatory agency inquiries.

She has transactional, litigation, and negotiation experience. She has reported to and worked directly with Board of Directors, Chief Executive Officers, and the C-Suite. In her ethics and compliance roles, she has consistently elevated the importance of trust and ethical behavior by creating education programs to help leaders and employees make better ethical decisions.