“In their own words”…Factors that help and hinder
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”.
"My guidance to anyone would be if you have got a problem, speak to somebody about it. They may not be able to solve it for you but you will feel better that you have spoken about it as opposed to leaving it pent up inside… The second one I would say is build up a circle of friends who you can trust to bounce and explore issues with." (Extract from interview with Ethan)
7. Factors that help and hinder
7.1 Leadership style
Interviewees often referred to the management styles of individuals they had worked with. Henry, for example, said:
"I have worked with some fantastic, motivational guys, guys like (name deleted), strong leader, fierce guy but fair and always did the right thing. Guys like (name deleted), same kind of guy, worked with him, always there, ‘What is the right thing to do, let’s do that’. And I have worked with other people and you think ‘These people are just nasty, not people you want to spend any time with, driven by greed, power, domination, they enjoy making people squirm’."
Mark also viewed an individual’s management style as crucial and recalled a person who he regarded as being a good leader:
"Very calm, not arrogant but very much wanted to reflect on situations but when he made a decision he was very strong on it, he would fight for what he believed in. A lot of the times he would get something and it would be discussed and so on but it was done in a more collaborative way."
After having a boss who would not resolve situations, Paula was glad to have a change of leadership in his successor. She says of her new boss:
"She has her door open more often than not, and she has lifted a blind that was permanently down on the window that looks into the office that… the first thing she did was open it and it stayed open ever since. So, those are tiny things but massive. She’s far more empathic. She’s far more engaging…and she is determined that you know the success of the organisation is not hers, it’s ours collectively. So, huge change."
The opposite was also mentioned. Laura described someone whom she regarded as a poor leader who was “extremely smart but she couldn’t cope with the pressure that she was under and she’d be shouting at people, creating quite an unpleasant atmosphere” and she reflected that she did not recall having had any development on good leadership during her chartered accountancy examination training. In her own relationships with staff who worked for her, like many of the interviewees, she had always tried to stress the importance of hearing about issues at the earliest opportunity:
"It’s constant reinforcement that it’s much harder to fix something after it has gone wrong and actually highlighting something as soon as it’s going wrong is for me a positive because it means we can fix it."
Having a supportive leader to be able to talk to was greatly appreciated by Colin at a very stressful period in his career. He had spoken with a senior member of staff with whom he had a good working relationship whilst working as a contractor. He had called this person out-of-hours with a serious concern about some potential accounting disclosures at the contractor firm. This person had clearly recognised Colin’s anxiety and had assured Colin that he would deal with the matter – and he did so. This was a very worrying time. Colin describes himself as being “paranoid” and “extremely concerned”, and said that the environment was very pressurised so he did question whether he was “over-reacting”. Speaking up was very difficult but Colin said that “at the end of the day, I felt that I had done the right thing”. He also felt that his efforts, though not necessarily welcomed by everyone at the firm, were appreciated in the end. There had been “mutual respect and someone had commented, “Well done, Colin, you stopped us all going to jail!”.
Likewise, where Belinda now works, she feels that she is in an environment where “the structures and culture” are much better than she had experienced previously. In this environment, she had raised an issue with her line manager which had been difficult but the line manager was approachable and had dealt with the matter so she felt vindicated.
7.2 Networks and mentors
The importance of cultivating a strong network was stressed by many interviewees. Ethan’s view was typical:
"My guidance to anyone would be if you have got a problem, speak to somebody about it. They may not be able to solve it for you but you will feel better that you have spoken about it as opposed to leaving it pent up inside… The second one I would say is build up a circle of friends who you can trust to bounce and explore issues with."
In Ethan’s case, he still kept in contact with a partner at his training firm with whom he had discussions from time to time. He felt it was important to be able to speak with people “who know the basics of what I am talking about”.
Sam also values his network, especially as he is the only qualified accountant in his organisation:
"We’ve got another CA on my board as a non-exec and he would likely be my first port of call depending on the circumstances. I’ve got other CAs in my network that I could contact to shoot the breeze and all that on a confidential basis. So depending on the circumstance clearly, I would have a number of avenues to explore."
Joshua also believed that building and keeping a network was crucial. To his regret, that had not happened in his case at the firm where he had lost his job for speaking up. In his case, the lack of a network was exacerbated because he had not been in the role for long when he had raised issues so he had not known the people involved, or senior management very well:
"The thing that I reflect on most is that I didn’t build up a network, I didn’t have people on my side, geographically and circumstantially. That was going to be difficult but I also know that I didn’t really try either."
Like the others, Diane felt that networks were invaluable and felt that ICAS could do more to link up members, especially those in niche sectors, but she did wonder whether this is now becoming more difficult following the introduction of GDPR and concerns about data sharing more generally. If those issues could be resolved, she felt that it would be easier for members “to identify and get in touch with each other” because, at the moment, she is in quite a niche area but does not feel that she has any real way of finding out about other people who she could “meet face to face and maybe talk about issues, challenges, those kind of things”.
Some interviewees went further, referring to mentors as well as networks. Calum felt that having good mentors was crucial, saying “I’ve been lucky to have brilliant mentors – guys who have been great to get a second opinion”. This is also reciprocal as he is also “used as a sounding board from time to time”. He therefore would like to see ICAS build on its current mentoring scheme to specifically include ethics. Morven described ethics mentoring as a “safety blanket” while Ethan said:
"If you are actually in that hole of being faced with a challenge...you need to have a mentor. Not that the mentor will solve it, it is just the fact that you can bounce."
Max currently acts as a mentor or, as he puts it, “I shadow an old friend. If he has a business issue, he will send it to me and say ‘What do you think?’ He finds this “mentally exhilarating” and says that as someone who has recently retired “I have the time to do it”. He therefore feels that if ICAS could have “some sort of group of people that the Institute could refer those with a problem” that would be helpful. Likewise, Adam felt that ethical mentoring “would be of immense benefit” and said that he “would volunteer to do that”. He did caution, however, that care would need to be taken in the selection of mentors.
7.3 Age and stage
Robert’s organisation did some research into their case files and found that reactions to people speaking up varied with age:
"More junior members of staff tended to be ignored in terms of the reaction from the employer. So if they’d raised concerns they tended to be ignored by the employer whereas more senior people tended to be dismissed, so victimised in some kind of way and so there was that kind of tension."
Sally’s experience reflected this. At an early stage as a newly qualified CA, she had raised some concerns over tax treatment and said that her views had been “dismissed”. There was also a widely expressed view that it is harder to raise things at a younger age when reliant on ongoing income (Colin) or when there is a mortgage to be paid (Jim). Matthew described a situation that he had ignored, a bribery example, where he said:
"Let’s be honest, I suppose at that time – could I just introduce my personal circumstances? If you are - as I have been through my 50s – independent, going from one client to another, pretty financially secure and the children grown up and through university - I am sure that has helped me take a very robust stance, and particularly in interim management… But I suppose at that time, I’ll have had a large mortgage, fee paying schools round my neck and a critical point. And it’s whether you can throw all that up, let’s be honest, is a factor in whether somebody would rock the boat and just walk straight out. So, there’s an element of weakness that can be caused by not being financially secure. My father once told me the reason judges in Britain are paid so well, is because they are meant to be paid well so that nobody can cross their hands and corrupt them."
Claire felt fortunate in being an experienced CA when she returned to her rural community to live and work. Because of the geographic isolation, covered more fully in the next section, she felt that “if I was a younger CA, I think it would be really, really hard” and that it gets easier “to stand your ground” with age and experience. In her case, she was glad that she had strong networks with other professionals that she could call upon, as she had done recently in relation to a tax issue.
Jacob’s view was that “if someone is a professional accountant then they shouldn’t feel lonely because they should be able to contact their professional body”. For many interviewees, the network that comes with professional membership is powerful but some interviewees nonetheless had feelings of isolation. This isolation can take a number of forms but may not always be recognised as such. In some situations, an ICAS member might be the only accountant in the organisation, representing professional isolation. This was the case for Diane. She had never felt “isolated” at her large training firm whereas now she was acutely aware that, as the only finance person, she has “felt those decision points a bit more strongly”.
Edward had not immediately thought about isolation but when a banker pointed it out to him, he recognised it immediately:
"Being a Finance Manager, Controller, Director, it’s a lonely job sometimes. Yeah. I remember I met a banker in (company name deleted), and we socialised one day, and he said, ‘You’ve got quite a lonely job, haven’t you?’ And I actually hadn’t thought about it until then, and I thought about it and I thought, ‘You’re actually right’. Because I was working with three entrepreneurial guys, who were sales, technically driven, and me."
Even with others around, isolation can be a problem if someone chooses not to consult with others. Logan remembered being told that “the biggest mistake you make as a partner is the one you make on your own”, a sentiment he has followed as his practice is to “always consult someone else before I launch off at the deep end”. This is why he feels that ICAS can play a role for people who are at earlier stages of their career and working in smaller-scale environments without the support networks available in larger firms:
"I think where ICAS can make a difference is not for the old walrus like me, I think it’s for the younger guys and girls who are in that smaller environment."
Another form of isolation mentioned by interviewees was geographic in nature. Sam trained with a firm in the north of Scotland and felt that trainees outside of the Central Belt were at a disadvantage in terms of confidence, a disadvantage that could affect their ability to speak up later in their career:
"From my own personal experience attending block in Queen Street in Edinburgh for example coming down from (town deleted) staying in a B&B week after week in the mid to late ‘90s, in that lecture theatre of 100 individuals, I’m going to say 5% were from outwith the central belt, and that 5% go figure at lunchtime, at night-time or whatever, they grouped together because they are the quietest or the shyest or the most retiring. They’re out of their comfort zone because they have never been there before versus everybody else who knows everybody else because they are all working for the same firm or they went to the same school or they have the same public school background. It’s that level of confidence that is engendered through the training programme to some extent that can influence your career thereafter yet you’ve got the same qualification. So I could absolutely feel that could influence somebody’s ability to have that level of conversation at a client or with a client."
Geographic isolation was felt acutely by Claire who lived and worked in a remote Highland location. In her words, “it can be very lonely being professionally qualified”. This had multiple effects. As work was scarce, “people do a whole mix of jobs”, often below their skill level, because that is all that is available. Also, anonymity is impossible whereas, in larger areas, “there’s more opportunity to escape”. This did not mean to imply that people living in cities were less likely to have ethical dilemmas but Claire said that the nature and ramifications of dilemmas were different, sometimes because the accountants would know the people in question well:
"One of the things that you need to be very, very aware of when you work in small communities in any professional capacity is the fact that there can be damage caused because a careless word or something can have effects that you are not aware of and everything can be posted before you have even said it sometimes. And it’s – I think – that members in the bigger cities, although they still must behave properly, and most people do, they have got a little more leeway."
7.5 Family relationships
Following on from Claire’s comments on geographic isolation, she continued that sometimes it might even be necessary to interact professionally with family members who did not always understand that certain matters were confidential and could not be discussed:
"You might in a business capacity have really no choice but to interact with people you might be related to. Sometimes it just can’t be avoided. It’s really, really difficult. And one prefers not to do that but sometimes it just happens by chance almost, and then you have just got to make certain you have got the right walls up."
In these circumstances, Claire said that “having things like the Power of One is actually really quite important because it really does help you just hearing things like that”. She also finds herself sometimes being stricter with family members, “and that’s just as bad, you shouldn’t be doing that, you need to be equitable”.
Though not living or working in an isolated community, Leo had also experienced a situation where he had been approached by a family member to become involved in that person’s business. He had done so but became aware of issues that he felt were unacceptable but the family relationship made things especially difficult:
"My dilemma really was, well I certainly left the employment, but my dilemma was what I should be doing about it and in reality I should have been reporting it in various directions. It was before the days of money laundering regulations certainly, but when you stop to think about the personal pressures and that it would probably have wiped out my career completely, family all that sort of thing comes into the mix and I actually feel looking back on it that I should have actually taken action on that, but I didn’t. To be honest there was a bit of physical intimidation involved there that could’ve been a problem as well. I suppose I was literally intimidated so I took the easy way out. It’s always stuck with me as not having done the right thing."
Hugh believes strongly that open cultures should be encouraged and that speak up helplines and ethics policies “and just the general tone of the organisation can encourage greater honesty and openness…we have to move away from a sort of punishment culture”.
Finlay believes that this sort of transparency is a key consideration for an effective speak up policy, probably via the organisation’s website. If people were able to read about the number and nature of instances, and to discern trends, then “if these were disclosed and categorised, along with the actions the board took, I think it would be a good level of transparency”.
Alexander’s organisation does not publish the outcomes of investigative processes in any way. He did feel that providing some information “would actually help create that climate of confidence in the process”. In some cases, feedback is provided to those who raise issues, however:
"If they remain employed by the organisation the default position is yes we would try and feedback to them. Now the opposite is true if they have exited then we would tend to say something quite anodyne in so far as ‘thank you for the matter you have mentioned, we have investigated it, we have concluded our investigation’. We probably wouldn’t give them any details but if they are still here and still employed by us, absolutely. I think we would have to kind of be as explicit as we could with them in terms of the outcome of that investigation. I think, to be honest, that transparency would actually be what we would feel obligated to do."
7.7 Due diligence
Some colleagues mentioned that, with hindsight, they should have done more due diligence before accepting jobs. Elliott said, “if I had done more due diligence, I might not have taken the job – that is a possibility. Hindsight is a wonderful thing”. Sally’s view was similar, saying “In a way, it’s your responsibility to do your own vetting procedures”. Several interviewees mentioned that, looking back, the personalities of people they had met at interview had provided clues of things to come. There is clearly a view, therefore, that whilst not fool-proof, carrying out some investigations before accepting a job is recommended.
7.8 Collecting evidence
In keeping with their training in audit evidence, a number of interviewees referred to the need to maintain good records of events. Jill had been careful to document all of her concerns before using the speak up helpline to report her boss. Abigail was careful to retain an email trail and to make notes of conversations after meetings when she had faced a difficult situation and had spoken to the Head of Compliance about a conflict of interest that she had seen. She had found this evidence trail to be very useful in dealing with the situation although it was still very stressful. Indeed, she commented during the interview that:
"I actually feel quite tense thinking about the situation now, it was horrible. I had never been put in a position where somebody was trying to tell me what to do when I knew it was wrong."
Collecting evidence therefore does not alleviate the stress but can help with reporting and progressing the case, as Abigail had found:
"Keeping evidence but also making notes of conversations where you are in a situation where you think things aren’t going well - hugely, hugely helpful. Because I did that as well in the situation where I spoke to the lady in compliance, is that I had gone to see her face to face, I hadn’t done an email, but when I came back I just made some notes for myself. And I emailed them to my home address so that if anything happened – access to them. Because I often, you know you come back and you say, ‘But I told you.’ ‘Well I don’t remember you saying that.’ So, if you keep your own notes so you can say, ‘No, actually on the 3rd July we met and what we talked about was the following…’ I think that’s really important if you feel uncomfortable. And it’s horrible feeling like you have to do it. But to me it’s the right thing to do."
Daniel recalled a situation that had been resolved satisfactorily in the end but he had taken steps to “make sure I backed up any stuff on my computer before I raised it in case it went bad and I was marched off and things were closed down”.
In the heat of the moment, however, people may forget to collect evidence. Hugo has found that people often note down facts such as time and date but forget about conversations:
"In moments of personal tension, people of course don’t have the time, or it doesn’t occur to them that actually that argument or that conversation I had with the boss when he said, ‘You adjust those figures, or I will sack you’, is something that they should write down."
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