Tag Archives: Auditing for Fraud

Tailoring Difficult Conversations

We CFE’s and forensic accountants, like other investigative professionals, are often called upon to be the bearers of bad news; it just goes with the territory.  CFE’s and forensic accountants are somewhat unique, however, in that, since fraud is ubiquitous, we’re called upon to communicate negative messages to such a diverse range of client types; today the chairman of an audit committee, tomorrow a corporate counsel, the day after that an estranged wife whose spouse has run off after looting the family business.

If there is anything worse than getting bad news, it may be delivering it. No one relishes the awkward, difficult, anxiety-producing exercise of relaying messages that may hurt, humiliate, or upset someone with whom the deliverer has a professional relationship. And, what’s more,  it often proves a thankless task. This was recognized in a Greek proverb almost 2,500 years ago, “Nobody loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Physicians, who are sometimes required to deliver worse news than most CFE’s ever will, often engage in many hours of classwork and practical experience studying and role-playing how to have difficult conversations with patients and their families They know that the message itself, may be devastating but how they deliver it can help the patient and his or her family begin to process even the most painful facts.   CFE’s are in the fortunate position of typically not having to deliver news that is quite so shattering.  Nevertheless, there is no question that certain investigative results can be extremely difficult to convey and to receive.  The ACFE tells us that learning how to prepare for and deliver such messages can create not only a a better investigator but facilitate a better investigative outcome.

Preparation to deliver difficult investigative results should begin well in advance, even before there is such a result to deliver. If the first time an investigator has a genuine interaction with the client is to confirm the existence of a fraud, that fact in itself constitutes a problem.  On the other hand, if the investigator has invested time in building a relationship before that difficult meeting takes place, the intent and motivations of both parties to the interaction are much better mutually understood. Continuous communication via weekly updates to clients from the moment irregularities are noted by examination is vital.

However, despite best efforts in building relationships and staying in regular contact with clients, some meetings will involve conveying difficult news. In those cases, preparation is critical to accomplishing objectives while dealing with any resultant fallout.  In such cases, the ACFE recommends focusing on investigative process as well as on content. Process is professionally performing the work, self-preparation for delivering the message, explaining the conclusions in meaningful and realistic ways, and for anticipating the consequences and possible response of the person receiving the message. Content is having the right data and valid conclusions so  the message is correct and complete.

Self-preparation involves considering the type of person who is receiving the difficult message and in determining the best approach for communicating it. Some people want to hear the bottom line first and the supporting information after that; others want to see a methodical building of the case item by item, with the conclusion at the end. Some are best appealed to via logic; others need a more empathetic delivery. Discussions guided by the appropriate approach are more likely to be productive. Put as much effort as possible into getting to know your client since personality tends to drive how he or she wants to receive information, interact with others, and, in turn, values things and people. When there is critical investigative information that has to be understood and accepted, seasoned examiners consider delivery tailored specifically to the client to be paramount.

Once the ground work has been laid, it’s time to have the discussion. It’s important, regarding the identified fraud, to remember to …

–Seek opportunities to balance the discussion by recognizing the client’s processes that are working well as well as those that have apparently failed;

–Offer to help or ask how you can help to address the specific issues raised in the discussion;

–Make it clear that you understand the client’s challenges. Be precise and factual in describing the causes of the identified irregularity;

–Maintain open body language. Avoid crossing your arms, don’t place your hands over your mouth or on your face, and keep your palms facing each other or slightly upwards instead of downwards. Don’t lean forward as this appears extra aggressive. Breathe deeply and evenly. If possible, mimic the body language of the message recipient, if the recipient is remaining calm. If the recipient begins to show signs of defensiveness or strong aggression, and your efforts to calm  the situation are not successful, you might suggest a follow-up meeting after both of you have digested what was said and to consider mutually acceptable options to move forward.

–Present the bottom-line message three times in different ways so your listener has time to absorb it.

–Let the client vent if he or she wishes. The ACFE warns against a tendency to interrupt the client’s remarks of explanation or sometimes of denial; “we don’t hire people who would do something like that!” Allowing the client time to vent frees him or her to get down to business moving afterward.

–Focus on problems with the process as well as on the actions of the suspect(s) to build context for the fraud scenario.

–Always demonstrate empathy. Take time to think about what’s going through your hearer’s mind and help him or her think through the alleged scenario and how it occurred, what’s going to happen next with the investigation, and how the range of issues raised by the investigation might be resolved.

Delivering difficult information is a minefield, and there are ample opportunities to take a wrong step and see explosive results. Emotional intelligence, understanding how to read people and relate to them, is vital in delivering difficult messages effectively. This is not an innate trait for many people, and it is a difficult one to learn, as are many of the other so-called soft skills. Yet they can be critical to the successful practice of fraud examination. Examiners rarely  get in trouble over their technical skills because such skills are generally easier for them to master.  Examiners tend to get in trouble over insufficient soft skills. College degrees and professional certifications are all aimed at the technical skills. Sadly, very little is done on the front end to help examiners with the equally critical soft skills which only arise after the experience of actual practice.  For that reason, watching a mentor deliver difficult messages or deal with emotional people is also an effective way to absorb good practices. ACFE training utilizes the role-playing of potentially troublesome presentations to a friendly group (say, the investigative staff) as another way to exercise one’s skills.

Delivering bad news is largely a matter of practice and experience, and it’s not something CFEs and forensic accountants have the choice to avoid. At the end of the day, examiners need to deliver our news verbally and in writing and to facilitate our clients understanding of it. The underlying objective is to ensure that the fact of the alleged fraud is adequately identified, reported and addressed, and that the associated risk is understood and effectively mitigated.

First Things First

About a decade ago, I attended a training session at the Virginia State Police training center conducted by James D. Ratley, then the training director for the ACFE. The training session contained some valuable advice for CFE’s and forensic accountants on immediate do’s and don’ts if an examiner strongly suspects the presence of employee perpetrated financial fraud within a client’s organization. Mr. Ratley’s counsel is as relevant today as it was then.

Ratley advised that every significant employee matter (whether a theft is involved or not) requires thoughtful examiner deliberation before any action is taken, since hasty moves will likely prove detrimental to both the investigator and to the client company. Consequently, knowing what should not be done if fraud is suspected is often more important to an eventual successful outcome than what should be done.

First, the investigator should not initially confront the employee with his or her suspicions until the investigator has first taken several important preliminary investigative steps.  Even when those steps have been taken, it may prove necessary to use a different method of informing the employee regarding her status, imminent material harm notwithstanding. False (or even valid) accusations can lead to defamation lawsuits or at the very least to an extremely uncomfortable work environment. The hasty investigator or management could offend an innocent person by questioning her integrity; consequently, your client company may never be able to regain that person’s trust or prior level of commitment. That downside is just one example of the collateral damage that can result from a fraud. Even if the employee is ultimately found to be guilty, an investigator’s insinuation gives him or her time to alter records and conceal the theft, and perhaps even siphon off more assets. It takes only a moment for an experienced person to erase a computer’s hard drive and shred documents. Although, virtually all business records can be reconstructed, reconstruction is a costly and time-consuming process that always aggravates an already stressful situation.

Second, as a rule, never terminate or suspend the suspect employee until the preliminary investigative steps referred to above have been taken.  The desire on the part of management to take decisive action is understandable, but hasty actions may be detrimental to the subsequent investigation and to the company. Furthermore, there may be certain advantages to continuing the person’s employment status for a brief period because his or her continued status might compel the suspect to take certain actions to your client’s or to the investigation’s benefit. This doesn’t apply to government employees since, unlike private sector employees, they cannot be compelled to participate in the investigation. There can be occasions, however, where it is necessary to immediately terminate the employee. For example, employees who serve in a position whose continued employment could put others at risk physically, financially, or otherwise may need to be terminated immediately. Such circumstances are rare, but if they do occur, management (and the CFE) should document the entire process and advise corporate counsel immediately.

Third, again, as a rule, the investigator should never share her initial suspicions with other employees unless their assistance is crucial, and then only if they are requested to maintain strict confidentiality.  The CFE places an arduous burden on anyone in whom s/he has confided. Asking an employee to shoulder such responsibilities is uncharted territory for nearly anyone (including for the examiner) and can aggravate an already stressful situation. An examiner may view the confidence placed in an employee as a reflection of his and management’s trust. However, the employee may view the uninvited responsibility as taking sides with management at the expense of his relationship with other employees. Consequently, this step should be taken only if necessary and, again, after consultation with counsel and management.

Regarding the do’s, Ratley recommended that the instant that an employee fraud matter surfaces, the investigator should begin continuous documentation of all pertinent investigation-related actions taken. Such documentation includes a chronological, written narrative composed with as much specificity as time permits. Its form can take many shapes, such as handwritten notes, Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets, emails to yourself or others, and/or relevant data captured in almost any other reproducible medium. This effort will, of course, be time consuming for management but is yet another example of the collateral damage resulting from almost any employee fraud. The documentation should also reference all direct and related costs and expenses incurred by the investigator and by the client company. This documentation will support insurance claims and be vital to a subsequent restitution process.  Other collateral business damages, such as the loss of customers, suppliers, or the negative fiscal impact on other employees may also merit documentation as appropriate.

Meetings with corporate counsel are also an important do.  An employee fraud situation is complex and fraught with risk for the investigator and for the client company. The circumstances can require broad and deep expertise in employment law, criminal law, insurance law, banking law, malpractice law, and various other legal concentrations. Fortunately, most corporate attorneys will acknowledge when they need to seek additional expertise beyond their own experience since a victim company counsel specializing in corporate matters may have little or no background in matters of fraud. Acknowledgment by an attorney that s/he needs additional expertise is a testament to his or her integrity. Furthermore, the client’s attorney may contribute value by participating throughout the duration of the investigation and possible prosecution and by bringing to bear his or her cumulative knowledge of the company to the benefit of the organization.

Next, depending on the nature of the fraud and on the degree of its fiscal impact, CFEs should meet with the client’s CPA firm but exercise caution. The client CPA may be well versed in their involvement with your client through their work on income taxes, audit, review, and compilations, but not in forensic analysis or fraud examination. Larger CPA firms may have departments that they claim specialize in financial forensics; the truth is that actual experience in these matters can vary widely. Furthermore, remember that the situation occurred under your client CPA’s watch, so the firm may not be free of conflict.

Finally, do determine from management as early as possible the range of actions it might want to take with respect to the suspect employee if subsequent investigation confirms the suspicion that fraud has indeed occurred.  Deciding how to handle the matter of what to do with the employee by relying upon advice from management and from the legal team can be quite helpful in shaping what investigative steps are taken subsequently. Ratley pointed out that the level and availability of evidence often drive actions relating to the suspect. For example, the best course of action for management may be to do nothing immediately, to closely monitor and document the employee’s activities, to suspend the employee with pay, or immediately terminate the suspect’s employment. There may be valid reasons to exercise any one of these options.

Let’s say the CFE is advised by management to merely monitor and document the employee’s activities since the CFE currently lacks sufficient evidence to suspend or terminate the employee immediately. The CFE and the client’s IT operation could both be integral parts of this option by designing a plan to protect the client from further loss while the investigation continues behind the scenes. The investigation can take place after hours or under the guise of an “efficiency audit,” “business planning,” or other designation. In any case, this option will probably require the investigator to devote substantial time to observe the employee and to concurrently conduct the investigation.   The CFE will either assemble sufficient evidence to proceed or conclude there is inadequate substantiation to support the accusation.

A fraud is a devastating event for any company but Mr. Ratley’s guidance about the first steps in an investigation of employee perpetrated financial fraud can help minimize the damage.  He concluded his remarks by making two additional points; first, few executives are familiar by experience with situations that require CFE or forensic accountant expertise; consequently, their often-well-meaning actions when confronted with the actuality of a fraud can result in costly mistakes regarding time, money and people. Although many such mistakes can be repaired given sufficient money and time, they are sometimes devastating and irrecoverable.  Second, attorneys, accountants and others in the service professions frequently lack sufficient experience to recognize the vast differences between civil and criminal processes.  Consequently, these professionals often can provide the best service to their corporate clients by referring and deferring to more capable fraud examination specialists like certified fraud examiners and experienced forensic accountants.