22 August 2017

Ethics, Audits, and Business Behaviour

So here we are again, with another corporate scandal. Who is it this week, Wells Fargo, Odebrecht, Uber, United, or someone else? The list of corporate scandals for even the past couple of years is daunting (and here, and here). Looking at the political landscape, we see the same thing, not just in the United States, but across the world. Another "breach of trust". Who would like to be dragged off the airplane today, or who would like to discover that your bank has been opening accounts in your name, that you get to pay for, without your permission?  How about that nice new bridge contract; the one that the contractor won off the back of brown envelopes, lots of envelopes?

Yet this is the reality of business today. In too many cases, the subsequent fine is significantly less than the profits from the (not proven to be criminal) activities that resulted in the scandal. Only in a few cases does the scandal result in an existential crisis for the company. Usually it only reduces management bonuses, and effectively robs the shareholders (and too frequently the customers) through destruction of share price.

Unfortunately too common following these crisis is the call for greater ethical standards. Sometimes, as happened this week with the Wells Fargo scandal, there will be calls for the audit to be improved, or the auditor sanctioned. Why unfortunately? Because such calls are meaningless.

Francine Mckenna and Andrea Riquier have written (another) strong article effectively asking "Where was KPMG, Wells Fargo’s auditor, while the funny business was going on?".  Not surprisingly, the Audit and Governance community react by pointing out that the auditor is not actually required to find or disclose non-material fraud. Nor are the auditors required to report where ethics are absent.

Pages are written about the PCAOB Auditing Standards, and the role of the Auditor. Almost all of it in defense of the audit profession. But Francine and Andrea quote Andy Green

“There’s been far too little attention since the crisis on how the external auditors should be looking out for the public,” Andy Green, managing director of economic policy for the Center for American Progress, told MarketWatch. They are not just bookkeepers, but the investors’, and the capital markets’ last defense against accounting manipulation and fraud.”

While extensively quoting the article, Norman Marks asks "Wells Fargo and KPMG – did KPMG fail the investors?" Actually, yes, they did. In fact, while Norman's list of things that Francine and Andrea "omitted from the article" are all correct, none of those change the fact that KPMG did fail the investors. They complied with the standards; they failed the ethical question.

Francine has a long history of taking the Audit profession to task, and while not agreeing with everything she has written, she is quite right far more times than not. The problem of course is that we do not want Auditors to tell the truth, or to opine on the ethical foundation of businesses or the individuals running those businesses.

On the one hand, they (the auditor) probably would not be able to, as they have spent so many decades as apologists for their clients. On the other hand, they would probably find that there were too few businesses or leaders that would pass a reasonable-man ethics course (based on their choices, not based on their ability to pass a test or give the "correct" answers).

Many years ago someone said to me that we didn't need more rules, we just needed better enunciated Ethical standards. I will repeat my answer:

"Ethics only apply to Ethical People".

All the ethical standards in the world will not make ethical people, especially when reward systems do not support ethical behavior. You can have all the ethical standards that you want, but fundamentally, unethical people will ignore then, and worse, will ensure that they pay for the appropriate PR to demonstrate just how ethical they and their businesses are.

I'm talking of course about people skilled in the art of managing the message. Not the bungling mouth pieces of today, who refuse to answer any question but use the time to rehearse some well scripted talking point.  I'm talking about Clive, from Telecom New Zealand (in the 1990s, so no relation to anyone there today, I'm sure).

Clive once said the secret to corporate communications was simple; "Bad news is good news, good news is no news".

While that works for managing the message, it does not demonstrate ethical behavior or even an ethical outlook, although there were a few cases where Clive most definitely was putting the positive face on what were apparently unpleasant situations.

Yet there is no way you can spin fraudulent accounts and accounting as good news. And there is no way that you can spin auditor ignorance or ignoring of fraudulent accounts as good news. There is no way that sexual harassment at the top of organizations can be spun to be good news. It is not even good news when these people are exposed, as it argues for a deeper pool of unexposed persons, all carrying on the behaviors that they have learned from their seniors (and betters?).

No, "Ethics only apply to Ethical People". For the rest there is something called "Jail time". We should stop trying to spin good news, or even trying to simply extract fines from companies. People did these things, and people should be held accountable.

If we want real Ethical behavior, then the cost of unethical behavior needs to be much higher.

That goes for Auditors as well.

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