Recent reports of the extremes some parents have pursued to get their children admitted into elite colleges have raised questions about what example these parents are setting for their children. In some cases the children were unaware of their parents’ extraordinary efforts, though others allegedly knew about it and therefore may have been complicit. Perhaps the scandal comes as no surprise to many in the audit profession — after all, we see cheating, rule bending, and outright falsehoods regularly. But rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and pretending it has nothing to do with us, internal auditors need to be part of the solution.
Research suggests that dishonesty among students is common. Donald McCabe, founding president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, analyzed surveys of nearly 71,000 college students conducted between 2002 and 2015. He reported that 39% admitted to cheating on tests, and 68% admitted to some form of cheating. Why do college students cheat? They want a good job and career.
Think about that last statement — college students cheat to get a job. Many of them obtain their first job as new hires in the audit department. If these students view cheating as acceptable, what can internal auditors do to help them understand their organization’s ethical expectations, as well as those of the internal audit profession?
Many years ago, a university colleague shared with me the story of a phone call he received from a local employer. The firm’s representative bluntly asked what the university was teaching its students, as his company had just caught an auditor signing off on an audit program for work not actually performed. My colleague privately observed later that he had always thought this individual, as a student at our university, had cheated in his classes, even though he never caught him in the act. From a professional viewpoint this anecdote points to a big risk — students who cheated in college may continue to cheat in their career.
Efforts to address such risk should begin as soon as students enter the workforce. Internal audit onboarding
activities and employee mentoring, for example, should be aimed at helping new hires do the right thing. Encouragement should focus on guidance to help them comprehend what it means to be an internal audit professional — including adherence to ethical standards. Recent graduates should be reminded that behavior they may have viewed as acceptable in college is not acceptable in the workforce.
We also need to promote success stories of individuals who have not cheated — of those who exemplify high standards of ethical conduct. We should celebrate individuals who stopped a fraud from happening, or who helped prevent the company from erring in judgment. Sending the right message up front will help the next generation of audit practitioners make good choices and maintain the standards of integrity that have long defined our profession.