Even if you are not a Spider-Man fan, most persons have heard the quote, "With great power comes great responsibility." Auditors tend not to think of themselves as very powerful. Rather, we often sit in the background quietly playing our role as trusted professionals, solving problems and dedicating ourselves to continuous improvement so we can offer quality services to those who employ us.
However, internal auditors' power lies within the knowledge and training we receive that often is unique to our profession but has multifaceted purposes throughout society. From charities to public office to environmental issues, our training has afforded us insights that we have taken for granted as common knowledge. As auditors develop their careers, there are opportunities for us to apply those insights in governance and ethics to society at large.
An IIA Position Paper (PDF) published in May 2018 defined governance as "the amalgam of processes and structures designed to help the organization achieve its objectives." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethics as "a set of moral principles or the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group." We often receive training in these topics, which at times stirs great debate in determining what constitutes good governance practices and hammering out the ethical behavior to employ when faced with certain scenarios.
If these topics can still create debate among learned professionals, then it is little wonder that society sometimes fails to grasp these principles. The line between right and wrong is not always clear. However, there are some areas within society where good governance practices and ethical principles are an absolute necessity, simply because of the impact their absence would create not just for ourselves but for those around us and future generations.
Internal auditors witness failures on a regular basis, whether it be a report on public finances with glaring red flags or poor/nonexistent controls. We witness decisions proposed or made that could harm the environment, be it a new plant rushed without an appropriate environmental assessment or sewage treatment plans without the necessary quality controls. We see new technological or digitization proposals that have not been adequately tested or have glaringly inadequate change-over procedures.
Sadly, there also are times that internal auditors witness inappropriate behavior, such as bribery, corruption, conflicts of interest, and lack of transparency in bidding processes, for which there may not always be a clear legal violation but, because of our training, we know that it represents a failure in good governance practices or ethical principles.
We know these things because we were trained to recognize them. But what is our responsibility outside of the role we were hired to do?
There is no IIA standard that forces us to speak out on these issues, particularly when it comes to matters of public interest. Indeed, speaking out is not everyone's strong suit and can at times come with adverse consequences and backlash. Do not fear: This post is not pushing for you to sacrifice yourself and your families to speak out on issues or topics that make you feel uncomfortable or worried about the safety of your loved ones!
I do hope, however, that you start to look for opportunities where your professional voice can add value to those around you:
- Maybe the church you attend has implemented a poor governance structure around the collection of money for fundraising events or the collection of tithes and offering.
- Maybe your local community group has been struggling to understand technology that could ease the paperwork that burdens the group.
- Maybe you have observed a way that your neighborhood could improve the way it disposes of waste safely and cost-efficiently that you can share with the sanitation services department.
- Maybe you could volunteer to teach a session to a community/religious group, school, or charity on the importance of ethics, governance, or finance.
- Or maybe you may be bold enough to speak out when your local government engages in practices that are not entirely above board or skate the legality lines.
However you decide to help, never feel as though your contribution is too small to make a difference. We may not be obligated to make a difference in our communities, but if we are going to hold the organizations that we work for accountable for corporate governance, should we not also hold ourselves accountable for being good corporate citizens?
I view the role of auditor as a noble profession and a career that has imbued me with the privilege of understanding these principles. I hope that this post has encouraged you to seek out opportunities where you can lend your expertise towards the improvement of others, your communities, or the society at large. In the words of Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Krystle Howell, CIA, CPA, ALMI, ACS, is an internal auditor with Sagicor Life Inc. in St. Michael, Barbados.
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