Loose Ends

A forensic accountant colleague of mine often refers to “loose-ends”. In his telling, loose-ends are elements of an investigation that get over-looked or insufficiently investigated which have the power to come back and bite an examiner with ill effect. That a small anomaly may be a sign of fraud is a fact that is no surprise to any seasoned investigator. Since fraud is typically hidden, the discovery of fraud usually is unlikely, at least at the beginning, to involve a huge revelation.

The typical audit does not presume that those the auditor examiners and the documents s/he reviews have something sinister about them. The overwhelming majority of audits are conducted in companies in which material fraud does not exist. However, the auditor maintains constant awareness that material fraud could be present.

Imagine a policewoman walking down a dark alley into which she knows a suspect has entered just before her. She doesn’t know where the suspect is, but as she walks down that alley, she is acutely aware of and attuned to her surroundings. Her senses are at their highest level. She knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that danger lurks nearby.

Fraud audits (and audits in general) aren’t like that. Fraud audits are more like walking through a busy mall and watching normal people go about their daily activities. In the back of the examiner’s mind, he knows that among all the shoppers are a few, a very few, shoplifters. They look just like everyone else. The examiner knows they are there because statistical studies and past experience have shown that they are, but he doesn’t know exactly where or who they are or when he will encounter them, if at all. If he were engaged to find them, he would have to design procedures to increase the likelihood of discovery without in any way annoying the substantial majority of honest shoppers in whose midst they swim.

A fraud risk assessment evaluates areas of potential fraud to determine whether the current control structure and environment are addressing fraud risk at a level that aligns with the organization’s risk appetite and risk tolerance. Therefore, it is important during the development and implementation of the risk management program to specifically address various fraud schemes to establish the correct levels of control.

It occurred to me a while back that a fraud risk assessment can of thought of as ignoring a loose-end if it fails to include sufficient consideration of the client organization’s ethical dimension. That the ethical dimension is not typically included as a matter of course in the routine fraud risk assessment constitutes, to my mind, a lost opportunity to conduct a fuller, and potentially, a more useful assessment. As part of their assessments, today’s practitioners can potentially use surveys, Control Self-Assessment sessions, focus groups, and workshops with employees to take the organization’s ethical temperature and determine its ethical baseline. Under this expanded model, the most successful fraud risk assessment would include small brainstorming sessions with the operational management of the business process(s) under review. Facilitated by a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), these assessments would look at typical fraud schemes encountered in various areas of the organization and identify the internal controls designed to mitigate each of them. At a high level, this analysis examines internal controls and the internal control environment, as well as resources available to prevent, detect, and deter fraud.

Fraud risk assessments emphasize possible collusion and management overrides to circumvent internal controls. Although an internal control might be in place to prevent fraudulent activity, the analysis must consider how this control could be circumvented, manipulated, or avoided. This evaluation can help the CFE understand the actual robustness and resilience of the control and of the control environment and estimate the potential risk to the organization.

One challenge at this point in the process is ensuring that the analysis assesses not just roles, but also those specific individuals who are responsible for the controls. Sometimes employees will feel uncomfortable contemplating a fellow employee or manager perpetrating fraud. This is where an outside fraud expert like the CFE can help facilitate the discussion and ensure that nothing is left off the table. To ask and get the answers to the right questions, the CFE facilitator should help the respondents keep in mind that:

o Fraud entails intentional misconduct designed to avoid detection.
o Risk assessments identify where fraud might occur and who the potential perpetrator(s) might be.
o Persons inside and outside of the organization could perpetrate such schemes.
o Fraud perpetrators typically exploit weaknesses in the system of controls or may override or circumvent controls.
o Fraud perpetrators typically find ways to hide the fraud from detection.

It’s important to evaluate whether the organization’s culture promotes ethical or unethical decision-making. Unfortunately, many organizations have established policies and procedures to comply with various regulations and guidelines without committing to promoting a culture of ethical behavior. Simply having a code of conduct or an ethics policy is not enough. What matters is how employees act when confronted with an ethical choice; this is referred to by the ACFE as measuring the organization’s ethical baseline.

Organizations can determine their ethical baseline by periodically conducting either CFE moderated Control Self-Assessment sessions including employees from high-risk business processes, through an online survey of employees from various areas and levels within the organization, or through workshop-based surveys using a balloting tool that can keep responses anonymous. The broader the survey population, the more insightful the results will be. For optimal results, surveys should be short and direct, with no more than 15 to 20 questions that should only take a few minutes for most employees to answer. An important aspect of conducting this survey is ensuring the anonymity of participants, so that their answers are not influenced by peer pressure or fear of retaliation. The survey can ask respondents to rate questions or statements on a scale, ranging from 1—Strongly Disagree to 5—Strongly Agree. Sample statements might include:

1. Our organizational culture is trust-based.
2. Missing approvals are not a big deal here.
3. Strong personalities dominate most departments.
4. Pressure to perform outweighs ethical behavior.
5. I share my passwords with my co-workers.
6. Retaliation will not be accepted here.
7. The saying “Don’t rock the boat!” fits this organization.
8. I am encouraged to speak up whenever needed.
9. Ethical behavior is a top priority of management.
10.I know where I can go if I need to report a potential issue of misconduct.

The ethical baseline should not be totally measured on a point system, nor should the organization be graded based on the survey results. The results should simply be an indicator of the organization’s ethical environment and a tool to identify potential areas of concern. If repeated over time, the baseline can help identify both positive and negative trends. The results of the ethical baseline survey should be discussed by the CFE with management as part of a broader fraud risk assessment project. This is especially important if there are areas with a lack of consensus among the survey respondents. For example, if the answer to a question is split down the middle between strongly agree and strongly disagree, this should be discussed to identify the root cause of the variance. Most questions should be worded to either show strong ethical behaviors or to raise red flags of potential unethical issues or inability to report such issues promptly to the correct level in the organization.

In summary, the additional value created by combining of the results of the traditional fraud risk assessment with an ethical baseline assessment can help CFEs better determine areas of risk and control that should be considered in building the fraud prevention and response plans. For example, fraud risk schemes that are heavily dependent on controls that can be easily overridden by management may require more frequent assurance from prevention professionals than those schemes that are mitigated by system-based controls. And an organization with a weak ethical baseline may require more frequent assessment of detective control procedures than one with a strong ethical baseline, which might rely on broader entity-level controls. By adding ethical climate evaluation to their standard fraud risk assessment procedures, CFEs can tie up what otherwise might be a major loose-end in their risk evaluation.

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