Ethical dilemma 10: Heroic efficiency target
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In 2008, ICAS Research published the report "What do you do now? Ethical Issues Encountered by Chartered Accountants" by Dr David Molyneaux containing 28 true life case studies of ethical dilemmas faced by accountants either in practice or business.
In recognition of this work, in 2009 the ICAS Technical Policy Board then published "Shades of Grey" containing a further series of case studies, one of which is reproduced below.
The views expressed in these respective case studies are those of the Ethics Committee and do not necessarily represent the views of the Council of ICAS.
This case study gives general guidance only and should not be relied on as appropriate or comprehensive in respect of any particular set of circumstances. It is recommended that users consider seeking their own professional advice.
The authors or the publisher can accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from action as a result of any material in this publication.
You are the finance director of Fortunesareus plc, a large UK subsidiary of an internationally based financial services organisation, which has grown substantially in recent years. You have been in the role for 4 years and believe that there is a very real chance that you might be in line for promotion to the group finance director position within the next couple of years, as long as you play your cards right and do not rock the boat.
You believe that such a promotion is merited. You have committed yourself to the organisation and your work-life balance is heavily weighted towards the former. Your work is your life, at least at the moment.
The Fortunesareus group, has had a bad couple of years worldwide, partly to do with the economic downturn in most areas, but also to do with poor management in some key areas of operations (but not in the UK).
In response to these poor results, the US parent had insisted on 5% cost cutting efficiencies in the current year in all subsidiaries: for you in the UK subsidiary, this was a very tough target and you have just about achieved it, but at the cost of a dispirited workforce and a range of economies which could not be sustained in the long term. The need to ensure that the company satisfies all of its regulatory requirements is a major issue and these cuts have left your organisation vulnerable.
At a recent video conference, Dan, the American Group FD, informed you that all subsidiaries must achieve a further 10% efficiency saving in the subsequent year (for which you are currently preparing the budgets), but that all operational and sales targets must still be met.
You and your colleagues greet this news with a degree of incredulity but it is made very clear that this is not negotiable.
You know that this is going to be almost impossible to achieve in practice and so, the next day, you call Dan and share these views with him. He tells you in no uncertain terms that your views are unhelpful and that if you are not prepared to implement these cuts then someone else will be found who can. You point out that the cuts will severely impact on the business's ability to satisfy its legal and regulatory responsibilities:
"We are struggling as it is to satisfy our compliance requirements."
Dan replies ominously:
"That is your responsibility, not mine."
By the end of the call it is crystal clear: either cuts will be made or you will be fired.
Once again you think to yourself, can further costs be trimmed without impacting on the company's compliance needs? You come to the same conclusion that this does not appear possible unless the company is willing to live with the significant risk that it will not comply with the regulatory requirements.
What do you do now?
What are the readily identifiable ethical issues for your decision?
For you personally
- Is there someone else in the organisation that you can discuss this issue with?
- Others in the organisation must be aware of the need for the company to comply with its regulatory requirements?
- Can you elevate this matter for full discussion at a future meeting of the group board?
- If, after proper debate, the proposals are still to be enacted, then you will need to consider your position if you still believe that their impact will put the company in a position where it is no longer able to satisfy its regulatory requirements.
- Is there a need to consider whistle blowing?
For the Company
- Has the impact of these proposed cuts on the company's ability to meet its compliance requirements been thought through properly?
Who are the key parties who can influence, or will be affected by, your decision?
- Your fellow directors
- The group FD and his fellow directors
- The shareholders
- The employees
- The financial regulatory body
- Customers and suppliers of the company.
What fundamental ethical principles for accountants are most applicable and is there an apparent conflict between them?
The need to ensure your fellow board members and those of the parent company are aware of the company's obligation to meet its compliance requirements.
The need to be able to assess the impact of these proposed cuts without personal bias.
Professional competence and due care
If the company decides to go ahead with this level of cuts is there any need to consider any possible whistle-blowing requirements?
The need to effectively communicate the compliance risks of this proposed cost cutting exercise to your fellow board members and those of the group.
Is there any further information (including legal obligations) or discussion that might be relevant?
- What whistle-blowing requirements exist within your organisation and within your regulated sector?
- Is there a conflict between the 'Guardian' and 'Commercial' strands of an accountant's responsibilities?
- In the shorter-term possibly, but for the longer-term sustainability of the company it would appear as though these competing strands are aligned.
Based on the information available, is there scope for an imaginative solution?
Are there any other comments?