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One Bad Apple Can Tarnish Us All​​

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I am often asked by those within the internal audit profession, "What keeps you up at night?" My answer often surprises. One of the things I worry most about is a high-profile ethical lapse by a member of our profession that tarnishes us all.

We have been fortunate for the most part, but occasional lapses by wayward internal auditors do sometimes make the press. On those rare occasions, someone in the media may wonder aloud, "Who is watching the internal auditors?" None of the cases in recent years has been devastating to our reputation. However, a recent example of a wayward internal auditor illustrates just how easy it is for a bad apple to tarnish the whole profession.

Last week, there were a number of British media reports regarding the actions of Andrew Skelton, a former senior internal auditor at Morrisons, one of the U.K.'s largest and oldest supermarket chains. The facts involving Skelton's misdeeds are well-established. He was found guilty of stealing and illegally sharing the bank, salary, and national insurance information of nearly 10,000 Morrisons employees. For his actions, Skelton received an eight-year prison sentence.

While the U.K.'s justice system has dealt with Skelton's criminal actions, the fallout of his transgressions continue to impact Morrisons. More than 2,000 Morrisons employees are seeking group litigation — the U.K.'s version of class-action status — to pursue legal action against the venerable grocer.

It's hard to fathom the scope of Skelton's betrayal, not just to his employer and former colleagues but to his profession, as well. His actions are light years from the high ideals all internal auditors must live up to. Indeed, when the profession takes on the mantel of ethical overseer, it must be held to the highest standards and operate beyond reproach.

As internal audit practitioners, we tell ourselves we are a breed apart. Often misunderstood and underappreciated, internal auditors help protect organizations from threats, both internal and external. In our roles as the guardians of trust, we provide assurance to help businesses operate efficiently, effectively, and ethically.

It's not hard to wax philosophic for those of us who have a true appreciation and love for what we do. In a previous blog, I identified seven attributes I believe internal audit leaders should model to provide the standard for ethical behavior. These are attributes all internal auditors, not just CAEs, should aspire to:

Honesty — This is the bedrock upon which all other ethical behavior is built.

Courage — Honesty is not always easy. It can be easy to know the right thing to do; it takes courage to actually do it. For an example of true courage, we need look no further than Cynthia Cooper, who blew the whistle at WorldCom despite real professional and personal danger.

Accountability — We must be constantly vigilant to ensure we are accountable for our actions. Nothing can damage one's ethical reputation more than the perception that we demand behavior we don't model.

Empathy — Honesty must be tempered by the realization that we work with people who are driven by hopes, dreams, and feelings. Accountability includes understanding the impact of our actions on others. We can accomplish our job without compromise while maintaining respect and compassion.

Trustworthiness — As the word implies, we must be worthy of others' trust. That trust must be built on a history of ethical behavior and accountability.

Respect — This is the payoff for acting honestly, courageously, and empathetically. If you reach this level, then those around you will instinctively turn to you as an ideal for ethical behavior.

Vision — This may be the hidden trait in ethics. Reacting to ethical conundrums only fulfills part of the ethical contract. It is important to keep an eye on the future and provide honest and courageous insight in reporting how situations can be averted. Acting proactively exhibits the deepest aspect of ethics — working to ensure things go right before they can go wrong.

Frankly, the attributes I have outlined above are not particularly difficult to model for those of us who hold ourselves out to be professional internal auditors. This is why it is so appalling, painful, and unforgiveable when any individual in the profession betrays those ideals for personal gain or spite. Let's not let the actions of Andrew Skelton or any other misguided member of our profession tarnish the best of who we are. Instead, let us rededicate ourselves to being guardians of trust in our organizations.

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