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Tag Archives: responsibility

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2012/0531/breaking29.html

It would appear that at Bloxham Stockbrokers accounts have been falsified for several years and that the problem involved enormous figures. Now, reassurances have been issued to investors who might be worried. Little is heard, however, of the Bloxham staff who will lose their jobs.

This wasn’t an accounting error. This was wilful. This wasn’t a little backstreet, fly-by-night “enterprise” in fear of being audited. This was a prestigious company which was regularly audited. The fact that the auditors failed should lead to some very hard questioning.

Vincent Browne tackles the auditors. http://politico.ie/social-issues/8586-auditing-firms-banking-crisis-audit-the-auditors.html  He writes about very well-known companies who – despite repeated failure – continue to be taken seriously. Indeed they continue to be awarded work by the state, i.e. the state gives them official recognition of suitability and confidence.

However, because he focusses on these large accountancy/management consultancy firms Vincent doesn’t give due recognition to a couple of issues. Firstly, these failures go to the heart of auditing and its professional status. Secondly, the problem extends beyond the large private firms

The issue of professionalism is at stake here. An essay might be written on its definition which might refer to payment as opposed to being an amateur or to dispassionate as opposed to involved but there is another crucial part of the usual understanding of what it means to be a professional.  Here is the crux of the thing:  if auditors are to be regarded as professionals in the usual sense of the term, they must face their responsibilities individually. In short, when there are failings and problems, questions should be asked not only of the company which employs the auditor but of the auditor himself/herself.

Financial auditing is too important to allow failed practitioners to hide behind their employers. If an auditor has been irresponsible, negligent, incompetent he/she should face sanctions right up to being struck off. Indeed such a level of personal responsibility would countervail the risk that an employer might want a particular outcome.

The second issue absent from Vincent’ piece is that the nonsense extends into the state auditors, the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. When it was reported that a former member of the board of Fás said that he’d been given assurances by staff of C&AG that all was ok, I wrote to the C&AG to ask if this had been investigated. I also asked had anything been learned from the years of failure to uncover wrongdoing at Fás, had auditing procedures changed, were the staff who had worked on these audits still in place? Many e-mails later, I’m still none the wiser. Well, that’s not entirely true; I was given the run-around rather than an answer but it is clear that nothing changed after Fás.

There seems to be a cumbersome route for initiating complaints against a professional auditor. http://www.iaasa.ie/faq/rms/index.htm What is not clear is whether  complaints are accepted from members of the public as opposed to clients and if this route is open, what is to be done when a member of the public doesn’t know the name of the professional beyond his/her employer.  What is needed is for auditors is something akin to the Irish Medical Council’s approach: http://www.medicalcouncil.ie/Public-Information/Making-a-Complaint-/Making-a-Complaint1.html

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It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/integrity/) There are rare situations where showing integrity might bring appalling consequences – even death – and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable. In most other situations the risk is small. Indeed the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is an ambition for career advancement. Now, let’s be quite clear here. If someone feels compelled to dishonesty for fear of being sacked, then that may be forgivable if the matter is relatively minor. However, a person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad.

Today there are calls for the resignation of Cardinal Seán Brady who acted in a professional manner rather than doing what was right. (http://www.herald.ie/news/i-didnt-realise-impact-of-child-abuse-brady-3097772.html http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h7m8r) As a mature man of 35 years, well into his career, his integrity was tested. He failed the test and is proven to be “the wrong stuff”, i.e. a person lacking in integrity and unsuited to a position of responsibility. The consequences of his failure were dire for a number of abused children. The risk to him of acting with integrity was slight. His life, his family, his livelihood were not on the line. All that was at risk for doing the right thing was a petty hope of promotion.

There are ordinary people who pass such tests. They are rarely dealing with matters so serious. They do however speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career will stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion or they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position.

Integrity is at the core of another, older post on this blog. (https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/ ) As the Irish property bubble/scam was developed with deliberation, there were those in banking, management generally, media, politics, the professions, education, public service, consultancies etc. who knew that it could end only in tears. Few of them passed the test: They lacked the integrity to speak up time and again. They preferred to take their chances by pretending that they believed in nonsense.

It is true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress. However, when they are found out, it is right that they be identified as “the wrong stuff” and asked to go.