“In their own words”…Actions – Speak up
In the following extract from the ICAS research publication “Speak up? Listen up? Whistleblow? In their own words – Insights into the ethical dilemmas of ICAS members” we hear from ICAS members about their real-life experiences of ethical challenges, “In their own words”.
"I've worked so damned hard to pass my exams, I attended every lecture … I really hold my membership close to my heart. I am very, very proud to be a CA and I couldn't have carried on being a CA if I hadn't spoken up." (Extract from interview with Jill)
5.1 Speak up
Meaning and nature of speak up
Elizabeth likes the term ‘speak up’ because “often the people that raise concerns are seen as troublemakers” whereas speaking up can be viewed as “just offering feedback”, meaning that speaking up should be viewed as “business as usual” rather than something extraordinary.
Interviewees were clear that speaking up was difficult. Belinda said “I didn’t like doing it” as it felt like “cliping on a colleague” but she went ahead because the situation she had seen “was just unethical and it exposed us to censure”.
Abigail had raised an issue while working for a bank and said that, although, the bank had said it encouraged speaking up, in practice, this had not been welcomed, saying that it felt like:
"You’re only allowed to speak up if you are saying, ‘Completely agree with everything’. That’s not speaking up to me. Speaking up is saying when you feel uncomfortable with something or you don’t agree."
She continued that the way in which someone speaks up is crucial and this is something that people need to learn about:
"And this goes back perhaps to your style about how you do it. You perhaps need the advice about how to raise the point and I don’t think it matters how junior, how senior you are. That can still be really difficult because you have got this need, you feel you have to say something but sometimes you don’t know how to go about it. And sometimes that’s purely because you have got to gauge the person you are going to speak to. And so, for me it was finding the person that I could go off and talk to and get some support. And so, that was the Head of Compliance that I spoke to."
From an organisational perspective, Finlay said that it is important to deal with issues at the earliest stage possible, so people need to be encouraged to speak up:
"My view has always been at the top, to say, if we have got a problem get it out on the table now because it is easier to deal with now than it may be in fifteen years’ time when these things have got long tails. So I think giving people that opportunity that you know you are not going to get fired if you put something on the table… you want to encourage people that if there is a problem get it on the table early because there are issues all over the place and you want people to feel they can air these. And it is a lot easier for an organisation to deal with it now than at a later date."
Likewise, Ethan said that at one firm where he had worked “surprises were always the big no-no”. The culture was “don’t hide anything, get it out”. He adopted this with his own team, trying to foster an “open environment”:
"The other thing I used to say to all my staff was if you tell me about it we can try and deal with it, if you keep it to yourself, I am going to get a surprise at the end of the day and then I am going to get my backside kicked and then if my managing director misses something he will get his backside kicked. So get these things out."
Despite the sense in dealing with issues at the earliest opportunity, Robert’s experience of working with a whistleblowing charity is that:
"Only around 20 or 30% of callers come to us before they have raised a concern. So the vast majority of people who come to us have already acted in some way. The vast majority of whistleblowers that contact our advice line have tried to raise it internally and those numbers don’t alter if it’s a professional body, if somebody has a professional qualification… we also found out that we were looking into our case files, a lot of people come to us round about the six month mark after the concerns have been witnessed. So they are not witnessing the concern that week and then calling, looking for advice from a charitable source. Sometimes there has been quite a time gap…"
This does not mean that people do not speak up at an early stage but it does imply that they often do so without necessarily seeking advice from a specialist source. Greater encouragement could therefore be given to people to take advice from specialist whistleblowing charities before they speak up internally, an action that might make it less likely that they will later feel the need to whistleblow externally.
Consequences of speaking up
Speaking up at an early stage is no guarantee, however, that the matter will be resolved. Colin’s experience shows the efforts that some members have had to go to raise issues. Colin first raised his issue internally with other colleagues at the same level, essentially in order to sound them out and get some consensus. He then spoke with the external auditors and then with the head of the accounting function. When these conversations had no effect, he escalated the matter to board level and at that point the issue was dealt with. Colin had to be quite tenacious in pursuing the issue. This was a stressful experience. He refers to feeling “paranoid” but also “nervous about getting in touch with this guy” and “it did take some courage to go down that route”. His eventual conversation with a board director led to a satisfactory outcome and a key feature is that he had raised the issue with someone who really had no option but to investigate (even though this instance took place before the current corporate governance regime had been introduced and this was not his primary motivation at the time):
"Thinking about it, ok it’s back in whatever it is, 20 years ago, more than that. To be honest being a main board director, if somebody like me did that to him he’s going to do something about it at the end of the day. He would be exposed significantly if he did nothing about that. So, he had to. But that probably at the time wasn’t part of my consideration. And that I did feel concerned that I had to get in touch with him. So there was an element of courage but it was more this paranoia, ‘Oh I need to get rid of this, some of this bloody problem’ at the end of the day"
Reactions to speaking up varied. Sally had raised two issues, one relating to tax treatments and the other relating to money laundering. In the first case, she said that she felt that she had been “dismissed because of her lack of seniority” while in the second she said she felt as though she had “marked her cards by speaking up”. In both cases, her actions had been vindicated but she still felt “like I’d been labelled as a troublemaker for raising the concern”.
Likewise, Jill had reported her immediate superior’s bullying behaviour and relationships with suppliers but found that neither her reporting via the firms’ speak up line nor direct reporting to Human Resources had ended well. Speaking to another senior member of staff at a later date was initially more fruitful. By chance, Jill spoke to a senior staff member in a related area to see if she could move to a different part of the business and this person had acted on the concerns but when Human Resources became involved again, the matter was closed. Jill found herself regraded downwards, had her salary cut and had some of her responsibilities taken away. Eventually her situation took its toll on her health and she had a period of sick leave. On her return, she moved to a different department where, despite not being on her old grade, she is happy in her work. Meanwhile, her boss had received another promotion. Like Sally, she felt that the fact that she was in a lower grade than the person she had reported had worked against her. In her words “management will always protect the senior. You’re the easier to get rid of. You’re so low down the organisation, you don’t have a voice”. Despite her experiences, Jill wanted to remain at her employer. She has tried to see her situation as a learning experience:
"I felt empowered to go back to (firm name deleted), I love my job, I’ve got some real good strong friends there. So I’ve taken it as an experience, I’ve learnt from it and I could work for anybody. If you’ve worked for the devil, I don’t fear working for anybody."
Joshua had also spoken up but then was fired three weeks later. Like Jill’s firm, his had a whistleblowing helpline, safeguards in place, and he had received extensive training in ethics at the company, so he felt that it would be safe to speak up. Instead of using the helpline, he contacted the head of ethics directly. He had a variety of concerns around “pressure on corporate targets, pressure on individuals, worries about personal bonuses, personal promotion prospects, all of those sort of things”. The part of the firm that he was in was growing extremely quickly, with aggressive sales strategies and targets and he had particular concerns about some aspects of the business model operated by his line manager:
"He was spending money and I was having to explain to people why money was being spent and he wasn’t telling me why. And in some cases I wasn’t even aware he was spending money until it had been spent.."
The head of ethics listened to his concerns and Joshua was pleased with how the matter was investigated as “it wasn’t swept under the carpet”. However, the result of the investigation was that the file was closed and no action was taken. With hindsight, Joshua reflected as follows:
"Did I wish that I could have done it differently and that I had had a sufficient relationship to be able to talk, that I had had a sufficient voice at the table to at least be able to annunciate some of this? Oh yes."
However, in an environment that he described as “closed”, “secretive” and “dysfunctional”, he hadn’t felt that this was realistic. He therefore did not challenge the outcome and his sacking, he signed release documentation and his thoughts on this show how complicated these situations can be:
"And one of the things that whistle blowers don’t necessarily talk about is you have to live your life. And so, if I didn’t sign the release I didn’t get paid the severance package that I was getting paid, and if I decided to make a fuss about this and fight them on this and say this is retaliation - it is not just that there is information asymmetry, it is like the large corporations and individuals - it is time, money, power asymmetry as well. And I took the money and ran. I thought about that, it was a conscious decision. But at the end of the day the perverse, stubborn, Scot in me was very much, you know, what I want to do is take this and ram it down his weedy little throat and in the fantasy life that works very well. But you’ve got the mortgage at the end of the month."
He mused about whether things might have been different if they had acknowledged his actions positively:
"I don’t know what would have happened if they had said thank you for bringing this to our attention, what was happening was against (company name deleted) policies, (boss name deleted) has been told and it was in the sense of (the company’s) eyes I had done a good thing as opposed to just taking advantage of a policy. I don’t know if I would have been let go at that point. But that is hypothetical and …that didn’t happen to me"
Speaking up is therefore a process with complex challenges and risks, as Elizabeth recognised, but her view is that if an organisation has a speak up system, or claims to value speaking up, then it is important to do so. She says that in the surveys of speak up practices that her organisation runs:
"One of the questions we ask them is, ‘Why didn’t you raise a concern?’ And a fair few say, ‘Because I didn’t think anything would happen.’ And that’s almost worse than detriment in a way because then the apathy seeps through. And we know that employees, no matter what posters you have on the walls saying, ‘Speak up, we’re listening’, employees will talk to each other and they’ll say, ‘Don’t bother calling the helpline, no one’s going to do anything’. And that’s far more detrimental than not having a poster there at all because cynicism pervades."
Although speaking up can have risks, some interviewees had seen positive outcomes too. Adam had raised some concerns with a bank “that work might not have been earned or awarded on an even handed basis”:
"That was an instance where speaking up actually had the desired effect. It maintained our credentials professionally and ethically with the client, it saw to the cleaning up of a situation which was a bit murky, and it meant that going forward (and it might not be that important going forward but if (the bank) had chosen not to give us any more work because that had happened once and therefore it might happen again) we couldn’t have complained. But in fact it established the fact that we were prepared to be honest."
Matthew had also been in situations when acting on an interim basis where he had spoken up, informing banks of malpractices. In one case, the bank was making loans to the firm on a daily basis on the value of invoices sent out to customers but Matthew discovered that the invoices were actually only sent out at the end of each month, a practice that Matthew’s boss at the company knew about. Therefore:
"If the company had gone bust on the 30th of the month, the bank would have lent a lot of money against sales invoices that weren’t truly sales invoices at all, they were just little aggregations on a computer screen. So, the bank had lent on the 30th of the month, £2 million of unsecured finance to the company that t hey thought was secured. And I’m very pleased to say I bypassed my Managing Director, went to the Chairman, and told him. And he said, “No problem Matthew, thank you very much for telling me. Go and tell the bank straight away.” So, I went and told the bank."
In this case, both the Chairman and the bank were pleased with the information. Matthew saw it as a case of “holding the line on independence and whatever, because this chap was my boss - obviously dropped him in it”. He continued:
"It built tremendous confidence between the bank and the company. And within six weeks we were out of the A&E department at the bank and trading successfully with a normal facility very quickly. So, the openness of disclosure was well received by the Chairman."
Resilience and confidence
Logan recalled several experiences of speaking up internally both in his work role in a large accountancy firm and, more recently, in a position he took on in retirement. He said that speaking up in this way had affected working relationships. In one situation he said that he and his partner had not spoken again after a difficult meeting but “I was able to take it on the chin because I was resilient in knowing that I was right”. He attributed the roots of this resilience and tenacity to a first formative experience on a particularly challenging audit:
"I think the (name deleted) experience was the one that made me resilient. It’s where I saw very senior partners…so these are people I respected and therefore I learned resilience working with them I think and I learned that if you are right and you take counsel and other people say you’re right, you stand your ground."
He continued that resilience:
"Comes I think from having trust and confidence in the people around you at the same time as being a little bit scared, you’ve got to be ‘am I right, have I missed this, am I totally wrong?’ you know. Question yourself but willing to have others question you as well."
In his retirement role, where he raised issues with the charity regulator, this resilience was also required on a number of fronts, ranging from amassing evidence to reporting the case. Such tenacity is not always welcome, as evidenced by him being told that someone had said “that guy (Logan) will never be on this board because he asks too many awkward questions” and others had asked him, “Why are you doing this? You’ll never get another charity role”.
Laura also used the word “resilience”. Reflecting on her experiences of speaking up about a colleague who was inappropriately claiming expenses, she said that speaking up and listening were really important but people needed to know that they also needed to be resilient:
"…encouraging those that are speaking to be really resilient and to know that at the core they are doing the right thing. I think that’s what would stop a lot of people speaking up because they weren’t resilient enough and they couldn’t necessarily cope with the fallout and so I think that there should be a real theme that runs through ICAS training, never mind everything else that I’ve talked about resilience and helping recognise that if you’re resilient that it puts you in a better position to do the right thing."
Speaking up is therefore difficult and not without risk. In Sam’s view, more needs to be done to encourage ICAS trainees to speak up and challenge clients throughout their training. He reflects on his thoughts about audit trainees as follows:
"Through my own experience being on the other side of the fence since I left practice, so in my ten years at the (name deleted) company I was serviced by (audit firm name deleted) and in those ten audits (and we also had internal auditors as well within the business on two or three occasions throughout every year), so over the ten years I must have met about 40 or 50 different audit juniors, seniors and I can count the fingers on one hand how many had the confidence to challenge me as the decision maker in the business from a finance perspective. And I still hold that lady in high regard because she had the ability to do it and it wasn’t necessarily the age gap. It was just the fact that she was confident in her ability and clearly been skilled or trained or whatever …she was able to go toe to toe with me and I really respected her for it."
A number of interviewees raised the issue of anonymity in speaking up. In general, there was a view that the natural tendency would usually be to “pick up the phone and speak to the managing director or speak to somebody in the field that they think they can trust” (Elliott). Nonetheless, some employees were of the opinion that offering anonymity is essential, though some felt that the practicalities depended upon context. In smaller organisations, it would be obvious who had raised an issue because of the small number of possible sources.
Anonymity can pose additional challenges for senior management and non-executive directors, however, as Alexander, who investigates speak up reports at a professional body, explains:
"An example might be somebody emails in and it is from an email address that they have created for the purpose of emailing, it might be Donald Duck or John Smith or something. So immediately you realise it is anonymous… I understand why people do it, I think what happens when things come in anonymously is it kind of makes people quite twitchy here, so if I need to discuss it with somebody confidentially within the organisation to try and pursue the claim, they sort of become very direct towards trying to find out who this person is, or interested, for example, ‘It could be so and so who left or it could be x, y and z’ because they left unhappily, which is very counterproductive. So I think the anonymous side of things does make it very, very difficult to kind of grapple with the investigation to pursue something. And then when you get back to them at the end of the process and you email back to John Smith or to Donald Duck you might not hear anything back so it leaves everybody kind of feeling quite sort of dissatisfied about the whole process really."
For Alexander, the issue is one of trust:
"You have got to try and establish a relationship of trust with somebody if you are going to deal with the matter they have raised effectively. But if they are anonymous and you are just communicating through an email then it is almost impossible to establish that trust."
Finlay has also received anonymous letters. He explains:
"Well over the years - which is quite a lot of years - I have had two letters sent to me as the Chair of a business and they have both been anonymous with some quite serious accusations in there. And these are the worst kind to receive because you can’t talk to anyone... You need to investigate it which takes up a lot of time and resource and it may be real in that someone in the organisation feels they can’t speak up so your procedures are not good enough.... So that is a sort of practical issue. And then it may just be a disgruntled employee who’s left and felt a bit badly treated, and is just causing some mischief. So these are the worst types to deal with but you have to investigate them."
Finlay continued that the most challenging of all are letters sent to shareholders or the press because by that stage the matter has generally escalated and therefore his views stated in the quote above of dealing with issues at the earliest possible stage no longer applies. He describes his acid test as being “how would this look in the press? Could we defend it?” In the case of one of the letters, sent to a key shareholder, Finlay describes receiving the letter from the shareholder as:
"A very difficult moment because the letter was just given to me over a desk and he said ‘Could you read that’. And then five pages later I said ‘Wow, is this the organisation that I am chairing?’ So it was a pretty uncomfortable moment."
Despite this, his reaction was that “they need to be followed up and the organisation needs to see that they are being followed up”.
The accountant’s role in the investigation
An aspect that was raised by Isaac is that an accountant may be asked to investigate. In one instance, he came across the case of a colleague who had claimed to be a chartered accountant but had resigned from membership several years previously, before joining the organisation in question. The holding of a professional qualification was a requirement of the job and this had been claimed on the colleague’s application form, so Isaac was concerned because this was a clear case of gross misconduct. In another example, a systems colleague had accessed staff emails in order to try to find information about specific pay rises. This action only came to light inadvertently and the person was immediately suspended. These cases show that ICAS members may come across cases of misconduct that are not necessarily accounting related but which require investigation. In the first case, Isaac was an investigator and in the second he was a witness. His over-riding feeling in both was of sadness because the individuals had “taken advantage”. In each case “it didn’t make sense whatsoever…It beggars belief, it really does”.
Morven had also been called upon to investigate issues on several occasions. One had been handed down to her by the CEO at her firm and others had come to her from the IT department. She said that this can be difficult because you become “the hate figure” in the organisation and subsequent working relationships can be affected because, in a small organisation you still have to interact with the same group of people. This also applied where she had spoken up about issues herself which had brought her into conflict with others. She was quite clear that in all of the situations that she had encountered:
"My life would have been far, far easier if I had never done anything because I wouldn’t have had the conflict, I wouldn’t have had the internal turmoil – but I would never have been able to live with myself."
In a series of extracts from the research hear from ICAS members about the real-life situations they have faced - “In their own words”.
Hear more about the key findings from the author of the research Catriona Paisey, Professor of Accounting, University of Glasgow