No matter how hard we try to hide, the real world continues to intrude into the cloistered world of internal audit, forcing us to evaluate ourselves and the work we are doing.
There is no need to rehash the accusations and revelations related to Harvey Weinstein. If you have seen a television, listened to a radio, read a newspaper, kept up on your social media accounts, paid attention to your significant other who is accessing any of the foregoing, or done anything beyond living under a rock for the last few weeks, then you have heard the sordid and heinous details.
Suffice to say that what was occurring was shameful, grotesque, and downright ugly. But the truly ugly part is what the story has revealed about the cultures in which we exist — how such practices seem to be ubiquitously ignored, disregarded, or accepted as standard practice. The magnitude of the issue was made clear when actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a request that those who have suffered through similar situations use the hashtag #MeToo. In 24 hours her tweet was retweeted 17,000 times and the hashtag used over 109,000 times.
I was surprised and shocked by the response. However, the women I speak with are not. As one female reporter noted, "I would be more surprised if any woman didn't post #MeToo."
The message to every internal auditor — the message to every human being — is that we all must open our eyes, even when we think they are already open, and take a long, hard, deep look at the cultures in which we exist.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about internal auditors reviewing organizational culture. The Weinstein situation, as well as the ensuing fall out, reveals that internal audit has a long way to go toward understanding the magnitude and scope of what auditing organizational culture really means.
And that understanding has to begin with each organization, each department, and each individual doing some intense soul-searching.
Have our actions been suspect? Have we contributed to the problem? Have we been complicit through non-action?
Let me tell you two personal stories.
In the 1990s, I worked with an executive who … well, let's just say he took liberties. (Obviously, names and some details have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.) To the best of my knowledge, his activities never reached Weinsteinian proportions, but there is no doubt he was allowed to do things that should not have been allowed. As one person noted, "There wasn't an unpinched female in the department." And the excuse from everyone was always "Oh, that's just Johnny."
You are an auditor. You hear those stories. What do you do?
I know what I did. Or, I shamefacedly say, I know what I didn't do.
Here's another story, one I had forgotten until I began looking back through the prism of these recent events. A couple of years after becoming manager of the Phoenix internal audit department, our analyst admitted to me that, prior to my taking over the department and for a while thereafter, the climate was not great. I don't know that she used the word "hostile," but it was implied.
The department was all male except for the lone female analyst. The best way to describe the activities was to call it "13-year-old-boy" behavior. (It didn't reach the levels that a rather prominent leader dismissed not too long ago as "locker room banter," but it wasn't good, either.) And I am ashamed to admit that, when I first came in, I not only accepted the actions of the others, but was a part of it.
Overt harassment? I don't think so. Actions that made the sole female in our group feel uncomfortable? Definitely.
Should she have come to me sooner? Of course. But in no way, shape, or form does it make her culpable in any way. And one of the questions I now ask myself (besides asking how I allowed myself to become a part of the behavior, let alone stop it) is why she didn't feel safe talking to me right away. Then again, the answer lies within the story itself. And it comes back to the magic word: culture.
I do not tell these stories with pride (obviously). I tell them partly because it reinforces the need for internal audit to ensure its own house is clean. But the main reason I tell them is because they show how easily we allow ourselves to be seduced by seemingly innocuous behaviors — seduced until we are willing to accept the most outrageous of activities as allowable. Culture is fragile and can be quickly and easily corrupted. (A recent cartoon from Hugh MacLeod included this line: "Culture is a virus — good or bad.")
So, as has been stated by many over the last year, internal audit must be willing to take on the culture of the entire organization.
Having said that — having said that internal audit must audit culture — do we really understand how onerous an obligation that is? And are we really willing to step forward, identify the issues, and make a stand?
I have had a number of discussions where I have suggested internal audit departments should perform statistical analyses to determine potential pay discrepancies between male and female employees. I am amazed by the number of people who tell me that it wouldn't be practical, it wouldn't reveal anything, and it is not worth the time.
Every one of those respondents was male.
Do we, as internal auditors, continue to back away claiming we don't have time or we don't think our organization has that problem or we just don't think we will find anything? Or do we take responsibility for all the things we say we want to be and actually do something.
We know there is a problem in today's culture. The Weinstein situation drives the point home with jackhammer-like impact. But, if you still don't think it is true, try talking to a few of the females in your organization. (And, if you are a female who believes there is not a problem or, even worse, thinks you are the only one, reach out. You will be surprised.)
Don't just dismiss what you hear as whining or "that's just the way it is." This is a significant issue that no internal auditor can afford to ignore.
At least, we can't afford to ignore it if we want to live up to our ethical standards and our convictions about what we want to be.