Every profession makes ethical behavior a cornerstone of accountability for its members. Internal auditors are no different, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard in this regard. This is exemplified by the International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF), which includes a well-defined code of ethics based on the principles of integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, and competency. As the code's introduction states, "a code of ethics is necessary and appropriate for the profession of internal auditing, founded as it is on the trust placed in its objective assurance about governance, risk management, and control."
This is one of the primary reasons we perceive ourselves as the "guardians of trust" in our organizations, professionals who are far more likely to disclose ethical misconduct than to misbehave ethically ourselves. However, the reality may be disappointing. In a survey of 70 chief audit executives attending a March 17 Audit Executive Center Roundtable, 32 percent acknowledged that they have "discovered or witnessed unethical actions" within their internal audit functions.
To live up to our aspirations of being the guardians of trust, internal audit leaders must set the bar for the rest of the profession. In looking at what ethical behavior really means, I've identified seven attributes I believe internal audit leadership should model to provide the standard for ethical behavior.
Honest — This is table stakes for ethical behavior. All other attributes stem from this, as one cannot be considered ethical unless one is willing to deal in truth.
Courageous — Being honest is not always easy. One needs to look no further than the example of Cynthia Cooper, who blew the whistle at WorldCom. In spite of a situation fraught with personal and professional danger, she stepped forward with a truth that needed to be shared. It can be easy to know the right thing to do; it often takes courage to actually do it.
Accountable — Nothing will damage the perception of an individual's commitment to ethical behavior more than hypocrisy. "Be as ethical as I say, not as ethical as I am" can be grounds for poor reputation. While the survey above does not indicate hypocrisy within internal audit, it does show that we have to be constantly vigilant to ensure we are accountable for our actions and the resulting perceptions.
Empathetic — Honesty must be tempered by the realization that we are working with human beings — people with hopes, dreams, and feelings. Part of being accountable includes accountability for the impact of our actions on others. This does not mean that we avoid issues. But it does mean treating others with respect and compassion when the truth is being told.
Trustworthy — If we have not developed trust, our honesty and courage are useless — our words, thoughts, and beliefs will fall on deaf ears. To be trustworthy literally means to be worthy of other individuals' trust. And that means we must build a history of ethical behavior, a foundation upon which people can place that trust.
Respected — It all comes together in respect. If you have been honest with people, if you have treated them with empathy, if you have shown courage, if you have exhibited the attributes of an ethical leader, then you will be respected. And that respect means they will turn to you as an ideal of ethical behavior.
Proactive — This may be the hidden trait in ethics; the one few think of. If you act only in a reactive manner, you are fulfilling only part of the ethical contract. While honesty and courage about past acts is important, it is just as important to keep an eye on the future and provide honesty and courage in reporting how situations can be averted. By acting proactively, you are exhibiting the deepest aspects of ethics — working to ensure things go right before they can go wrong.
And there is one final, and very important, point to add. I have used the word "leadership." However, that does not mean I am speaking only to people who have been officially designated as leaders within internal audit. All internal auditors have a mandate to demonstrate leadership. And all auditors need to understand the necessity of exhibiting these traits, and helping ensure internal audit continues to be perceived as the profession that holds itself to a higher ethical standard.