The Ethics of Earnings: How C & E Officers Can Promote Ethical Financial Reporting Practices in an Organization

While money may not actually be the root of all evil, it is often a primary source of ethical breaches in the corporate world. One only has to look at the numerous corporate scandals in recent years for evidence of financial misconduct that has caused significant harm to companies, as well as their employees and stakeholders.

Financial improprieties are not always motivated by greed. However, the pressure to deliver financial performance can also lead to ethical breaches. “Fraud starts with pressure to perform,” says Michael Young, an attorney who specializes in securities and fraud litigation. “Folks rationalize to meet goals, and they step over the line bit by bit.”

If you are a corporate compliance and ethics officer, you can, and should, play a key role in safeguarding your organization against fraud and financial misconduct. After all, the finance and ethics arms of an organization both share the common goal of protecting it from needless risk.

The Ethics Resource Center Fellows Program, a collection of senior ethics professionals and scholars dedicated to improving ethics in the workplace, offers a few tips as to how ethics officers can provide support to their colleagues who are responsible for the organization’s finances and financial reporting.

Improve your “financial IQ.” While a C & E officer is not expected to be a finance expert, you need to possess enough financial literacy to understand how various financial practices and decisions relate to your organization’s overall strategy. Increasing your financial knowledge will place you in a position to be able to advise finance personnel as to whether their decisions are in line with the company’s value system.

Engage key finance personnel. Make an effort to build relationships with key financial players in your organization, particularly the CFO. Let them know you are always available to serve as a sounding board to help them navigate the often-murky ethical waters that can be a part of financial reporting. Offer to provide training to enhance their self-recognition skills, which will enable them to objectively identify risks and potential misconduct and make sounder ethical decisions.

Know the various reporting requirements. All publicly traded companies are required to provide financial reports to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and other federal and state regulatory bodies, primarily to inform and protect investors and other stakeholders. By gaining an understanding of the various reporting requirements, documents, and deadlines that pertain to your company, you will be able to assess the potential stresses on financial officers that can lead to misconduct, particularly when a key reporting deadline looms.

Participate in the preparation and review of communications materials. Most organizations prepare press releases and similar materials related to financial reports for public consumption. Often, finance personnel feel the need – or perhaps, the pressure – to use these mechanisms to portray the company’s financial picture in the most favorable light. By taking an active role in the preparation and review of these documents, you can help mitigate misstatements that could have ethical or even legal consequences for the organization.

Look outward as well as inward. In addition to monitoring your organization’s internal financial processes, it is important to keep an eye on external events that could lead to ethical misconduct. For instance, changes in tax laws or other factors could offer the temptation to falsify numbers to achieve financial gain. By keeping abreast of these types of developments, you can alert finance leadership to the potential risks from an ethics perspective.

Ask questions. By positioning yourself as a non-expert “member” of the finance team, you can use your role as C & E officer to ask the “dumb” questions about the company’s financial activities that others may be afraid to ask. And as the C & E officer, you also have the obligation to ask tough questions when something doesn’t look or sound quite right. By asking questions, you have the opportunity to reinforce your organization’s ethical values and help avoid financial improprieties that may ultimately lead to its downfall.

To learn more about the role of compliance and ethics officers can play in ensuring ethical financial reporting practices in an organization, view the report “The Ethics of Earnings: The Truth and Consequences of Corporate Financial Reporting,” prepared by the ERC Fellows Program.

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