​A Strong Ethical Compass: An Essential Trait for Internal Auditors​

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​​Internal auditors are ethical — right? After all, we think of ourselves as the “beacon of ethical light” in every organization. If you can’t trust the internal auditor, who can you trust? Yet, at the end of the day, we are also human. We are subject to the same pressures (culturally, politically, and organizationally) as everyone else in the enterprise. So, maybe we are vulnerable after all.

But can we afford the luxury? I think not.

In the past few months, I have become increasingly troubled by isolated instances when the “ethical compasses” of internal auditors appeared to fail — rather spectacularly. In some instances, they were accused of concealing audit results from the audit committee at the behest of senior management. In other instances, they took it upon themselves to spare their organization embarrassment, and withheld negative audit results fearing bad publicity. In the end, each of the cases ended as badly for the internal auditors as they did for management. Why? Because “the cover-up is often worse than the crime”!

 After almost 37 years in the profession, I have encountered more than a few professional ethical dilemmas. They typically involved whether to “call it like it was” despite the potential personal and professional consequences. Fortunately, I was always a little too naïve, foolish, or (maybe even) daring to care. I did what I needed to do. But, I could easily see how others would take a different path. Unfortunately, when we do take the easier path, we sacrifice not only our own professionalism, but we chip away at the reputation of our profession as well. I often observe that “I would rather no one know what internal auditors do than to draw conclusions from those who do it poorly.”

 A blog is too short to explore all of the intricacies of every ethical dilemma we face. However, I have identified several dilemmas that commonly arise for the internal auditors. As I am sure you will agree, these dilemmas often force us to face the areas of grey rather than the pure black and white world in which we prefer to live. I would suggest you answer each of these questions as though you were facing a personal ethical dilemma:

  • You audited an area for which you were previously responsible and found major control deficiencies related to the period over which you exercised control. You didn’t know the deficiencies were present when you had responsibility for the area. Would you report them?
  • Your annual risk assessment identified a key business process related to how the company performed during the winter holiday season. Scheduling the audit for the coming year would mean that you and your team would have to sacrifice holidays with your family. Would you schedule it anyway?
  • You audited an area where a family member or close friend had key management responsibilities. You identified major problems. ​What do you do?
  • You are in a rotational assignment in internal audit. You are slated to rotate into an undetermined business unit in a year. You just audited the business unit in which you most want to work, and have some critical findings. Do you report them or sit on them?
  • You are the chief audit executive (CAE) of a Fortune 500 company. Your audit team just identified potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Disclosure would create havoc and bring disrepute to the company. Do you finalize the report and send it to the audit committee?
  • You just completed an audit of the company’s expense reporting processes and found several violations of travel expense policies. However, you know that you do not personally comply with these policies. Do you call out noncompliance anyway?
  • You have been accruing company stock in your 401K and stock options in your company since you accepted the role of CAE. Your audit team just delivered a draft audit report to you that cited a potentially serious fraud involving the company’s financial reporting. Disclosure would likely devastate the share value along with your personal worth. What do you do?

My guess is that you were easily able to answer these questions in your mind. Of course you would do the right thing. Yet, too often I have seen those faced with the real dilemmas cited above whose “moral compass” failed them. Don’t let that happen to you.

​The opinions expressed by Internal Auditor's bloggers may differ from policies and official statements of The Institute of Internal Auditors and its committees and from opinions endorsed by the bloggers' employers or the editors of Internal Auditor. The magazine is pleased to provide you an opportunity to share your thoughts about these blog posts. Some comments may be reprinted elsewhere, online or offline.

 

 

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