No matter the size of your business or the industry in which you operate, there is almost certainly at least one government agency tasked with regulating your activities. More often than not, your business is allowed to open—and stay open—solely at the grace of some official body. And if it is not your business that relies on governmental go-ahead, your employment or ability to offer professional services is almost certainly tied to some sort of licensing regime.
Fair or not, efficient or not, the ever-widening intersection between the government and our professional lives has broad political support. And agency oversight will continue to operate as a one-way ratchet, always cranking up the control and supervision.
Therefore, the odds are good that in the near future you will receive at least one letter from a government agency opening an investigation, demanding action or records, or threatening dire consequences. What should you do? Here is some simple advice:
First, decide whether you want an attorney (if you do not already have one). Not only will an attorney be able to walk you through a difficult and foreign process, but chances are he or she will have prior experience with the government actors on the other side. Such relationships and institutional knowledge will be critical in helping you resolve the matter.
Second, determine if the letter was expected. If so, the hope is that you had already been taking steps to deal with or account for the agency’s response. Unless you are at risk of criminal charges or substantial civil fines or actions, few agencies strike first with total secrecy. Usually, official notices are part of an ongoing conversation, not a shot in the dark. Expected is always better than unexpected.
Third, figure out the jurisdiction. Federal, state, local, and quasi-governmental bodies like a professional board of examiners will all likely have some form of jurisdiction over you or your business. Determining where the authority lies will go a long way to knowing the extent of the risk and the path to resolution.
Fourth, isolate what is at stake. Administrative agencies have authority to both enforce the law and adjudicate disputes. They have power to investigate, issue fines great and small, or close you down for good. Investigations may be mild and harmless, or the first step towards serious action against you. You need to be able to decide what is at stake right away. Doing so will help you formulate a response.
Fifth, respond in a timely fashion. Simply throwing the letter in the trash or refusing to respond is never the right answer. You should always respond in some way, even if your response is limited. The deadline to respond should be in the letter.
Sixth, start gathering records and making sure your employees or staff (if any) know not to destroy any relevant documents.
Seventh, investigate. If you have not already done so, start your own investigation into the issues raised by the letter. If the letter cites a statute, rule, or regulation, make sure you or your attorney researches it.
Finally, do not panic! Only in rare situations do administrative probes trigger substantial consequences. Most likely, you will be able to resolve the situation in a way that keeps you employed or in business. Contrary to popular misbelief, most government employees and agencies are not looking to destroy you. They generally want to be efficient and fair. They have tough jobs, and making their jobs more difficult is usually not a winning strategy.