14 July 2005

Corporate Governance: Testing for Organizational Disease...

Now that the 25 year sentence has been handed down in the Worldcom corporate goverance and fraud case, it's obvious that prosecuting white collar crime cases is a real challenge.

In the HealthSouth Corp. fraud trial, the jury made a different decision and the CEO was acquited.

Some lawyers suggested white-collar cases are inevitably difficult to present to jurors, whether they live in Birmingham or New York. "It's different from a drug deal or a bank robbery," said Donald Stern, a Boston attorney who was formerly that city's top federal prosecutor. "It's not obvious that a crime has been committed."

What the Board of Director's and Executive Management do know is that it's time to make some more changes in Corporate Governance initiatives. The relationships with the shareholders is bound to continue to be a challenge for any management team and they realize that they must be creating a culture full of ethics and risk management principles.

At the end of the day it comes down to the evidence presented to the jury. And the evidence is typically a presentation of information utilizing forensic methods of discovery. Dr. Thomas R. O'Connor at NCWC has some interesting background on the subject of Investigative Methods in Forensic Accounting.

Signs of financial crime can be initially detected in a variety of ways -- by accident, by whistle-blowing, by auditors, by data mining, by controls and testing, or by the organization's top management requesting an inspection on the basis of mere suspicion. Ideally, fraud detection ought to be recognized as an important responsibility throughout every organization, and every employee in an organization ought to be familiar with the disciplinary consequences for breach of trust as well as failure to report criminal misdeeds against the organization. On a practical level, however, there are steps to the investigative method used in an organizational context that are far from these ideals, and reaching the "breakthrough" point is more an art than science. It is the purpose of this lecture note to outline the investigative methods and procedures used in most cases.

Red Flags of Organizational Behavior:

1. Unrealistic performance compensation packages -- the organization will rely almost exclusively, and to the detriment of employee retention, on executive pay systems linked to the organization's profit margins or share price.

2. Inadequate Board oversight -- there is no real involvement by the Board of Directors, Board appointments are honorariums for the most part, and conflicts of interest as well as nepotism (the second cousin to corruption) are overlooked.

3. Unprofitable offshore operations -- foreign operation facilities that should be closed down are kept barely functioning because this may be where top management fraudsters have used bribes to secure a "safe haven" in the event of need for swift exit.

4. Poor segregation of duties -- the organization does not have sufficient controls on who has budget authority, who can place requisitions, or who can take customer orders, and who settles or reconciles these things when the expenses, invoices, or receipts come in.

5. Poor computer security -- the organization doesn't seem to care about computer security, has slack password controls, hasn't invested in antivirus, firewalls, IDS, logfiles, data warehousing, data mining, or the budget and personnel assigned to IS. Simultaneously, the organization seems over-concerned with minor matters, like whether employees are downloading music, chatting, playing games, or viewing porn.

6. Low morale, high staff turnover, and whistleblowers -- Low morale and staff shortages go hand-in-hand, employees feel overworked and underpaid, frequent turnover seems to occur in key positions, and complaints take the form of whistleblowing.

As we move forward on strategies for improving ethics and protecting corporate assets it's clear that educating board members and employees to the symptoms of corporate disease can be a key initiative. That education and awareness program could be the beginning of a whole new era of high performing companies. And for that matter, the programs effectiveness may be the first test of any organizations health.

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