Maintaining business integrity in a post-truth world

By F R (Rhys) Robinson

Locally and internationally, the headlines of late have been disheartening, from politics to environmental news and even within the financial and accounting professions. Many firms have come under fire – whether for failing to uphold professional standards or even being implicated in accounting or auditing scandals. Some of the responsibility they’re shouldering may be fair; some might not. But in this age of “alternative facts” and social media, protecting our integrity is more important than ever before, both as individuals and collectively in businesses.

Integrity can be defined in various ways. The Cambridge English Dictionary says it’s “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change”. Another idea that I like is that integrity is simply being the same on the outside as you are on the inside – no matter who or what you’re dealing with. In that sense, if you believe in honesty in your core, you will refuse to behave dishonestly, even if it means a bigger profit or better opportunity.

I think the answer to preventing any disrepute is to pursue systemic integrity in our professions and organisations. So how do we do that?

Integrity starts with you and with me

First, it’s important to understand that business integrity is a collective endeavour. Each of us has a role to play – no matter what our job description or level of power. Integrity takes hard work sometimes. It means doing the right thing, even when it’s not easy, and we each need to be committed to making that choice, every day.

At an organisational level, ensuring integrity means everyone is willing to keep each other in check – and to be kept in check. Too often, we place responsibility solely on leaders. While they do shoulder great responsibility, employees and shareholders need to realise they are also responsible for maintaining and protecting the business’s integrity. We all need to help one another to weed out our blind spots.

In the financial world, we also help build structures where integrity can flourish through focusing on objectivity, impartiality and independence. I believe we should also pursue greater transparency. As openness increases, there are less “dark places” where confusion and dishonesty can grow.

Next, look at the data level

Any decent data scientist or accountant understands the importance of clean data in drawing useful conclusions.

Dirty data muddies the water and makes room for unnecessary mistakes as well as deliberate obfuscation. As the saying goes, “Numbers don’t lie.” But, if the numbers aren’t accurate and clear, sometimes they might as well.

When you simplify the figures by cutting out the clutter and working only with relevant, clean data, you can use your numbers to flag potential problems and deal with them efficiently. If, however, you have inaccurate data and you’re not clear on your key metrics, you run the risk of missing those red flags, opening yourself to potential data manipulation.

Bridge data and people with smart systems

Even the most competent people will make mistakes, so to protect an organisation from human error, it’s wise to invest in experts and systems that provide a measure of automation and independence where possible.

This is actually easy to do in a number of functions, including finance, operations and HR. For example, automating various HR admin processes can protect against preferential treatment or the perception thereof. Similarly, automating key aspects of an organisation’s financial reporting can help to weed out common issues like Excel formula corruption, version control on documents and ultimately the misstatement of numbers.

Don’t forget the obvious

When it comes to business integrity, as in most things, actions speak louder than words. So, for those of us who want to prioritise business integrity, it’s important we don’t just say all the right things, but follow through and do them. This is no easy feat. It means meeting our commitments, treating everyone with respect – no matter their “rank” – and putting in the time and effort to build and maintain trust with our employees, partners and shareholders.

To me, success without integrity is not true success. It also leaves us vulnerable when things go wrong. To state what every good leader already knows, integrity remains the true mark of leadership, so let’s bring the focus on it back into our organisations and professions. I think it’s the best place to start building sustainable businesses, fixing the systemic issues that have brought our professions into disrepute, and future-proofing them against further potential damage. Let’s ensure integrity is the cornerstone of our businesses.

F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd.



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