Monday, October 29, 2007

Whistleblowing: One Woman's Tale

Cynthia Cooper, former Worldcom internal audit vice president and a major party in the uncovering of the multi-billion dollar fraud there, recently spoke at a joint ASWA/American Women's Society of CPAs conference at Walt Disney World. Cooper talked of tremendous ethical pressure and the overwhelming fear she felt while staying at the firm long enough to complete the legal depositions. Cooper now is a consultant in internal audit and corporate governance.

A reasonable definition of courage is the ability to stay on and do what must be done when you are scared out of "your mind" and circumstances appear overwhelming ("push forward through the fear" as Cooper put it). Certainly, Cooper qualifies with room to spare.

Whistle-blowing is an extremely emotional issue which sometimes seems to take the wisdom of Solomon to handle well. Some level of secrecy is needed to operate businesses effectively and most professional bodies have confidentiality provisions within their codes of ethics. At the same time, hurtful or illegal behavior by management or auditors cannot be acceptable; too much damage is done to society. I feel that the ethical standard on confidentiality once held by the IMA was too harsh and penalized legitimate concerns about questionable acts by management; at the same time, there is a lot of cultural bias against "snitches and rats" and the whistle-blower must know that his or her future is likely to be a lonely one. Final conclusion (I think): internal and external auditors HAVE to be able to stand firm against unethical conduct; including whistle-blowing AFTER other approaches have been tried. Governmental auditors and even accountants are pretty much in the same boat since taxpayer money (involuntary sourcing) is involved. Private business accountants probably should be the last to whistleblow--if possible, talk to an internal auditor (external auditor in extreme cases or if internal auditor is not available) and start looking for employment elsewhere if the ethical climate where you work is intolerable.


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