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Professionals working in the auditing and accounting fields in South Africa are generally keen to report unethical behaviour within their fields, provided the conditions under which they do so are conducive and supportive. There are risks involved in exposing corruption or unethical behaviour, and if companies and professional bodies do not curb incidents of intimidation, the situation will not improve.

This was revealed at the launch of the inaugural Ethical Practices Survey, conducted by the Anti-Intimidation and Ethical Practices Forum (AEPF), in Sandton yesterday. The survey polled 1 890 professionals and aimed to measure their perceptions about ethics in their society, organisations, and professional institutions.

It was launched amid allegations of unethical conduct by KPMG, one of the country’s leading auditing firms. The Institute of Directors in Southern Africa, one of the bodies making up AEPF, announced on Monday that it had suspended all of its co-branded activities with KPMG, including its involvement in the Audit Committee Forum. KPMG is also under investigation by the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors.

The scandal was revealed in a GuptaLeaks exposé saying that the firm had allegedly helped to siphon funds from the Free State government – meant for a dairy farm project – to partly pay for the lavish wedding of Vega Gupta, a niece of the Gupta brothers, to Aakash Jahajgarhia at Sun City in 2013. The Guptas are at the centre of the state capture debacle surrounding some ANC leaders in the executive.

Don’t do it if there is any doubt

Speaking at the launch, Corruption Watch’s executive director David Lewis lauded the efforts of the AEPF in seeking insight from employees of member organisations on the subject of ethics and good governance, and more importantly, the individuals’ roles in reducing it.

“I think that the report would be greatly strengthened had it been able to frame questions – and this may well be impossible – that enabled us to know what the respondents considered to be unethical conduct.

“Maybe the best definitions are those that hold that if one has to ask whether a given conduct is ethical or not, then it’s probably unethical. Or the known rule that holds that if you would prefer not to have your conduct reported in the Sunday papers then it’s best not to engage in it.”

Reacting to the KPMG case, political analyst Somadoda Fikeni was quoted by the Sunday Tribune as saying it was difficult to tell if the firm knowingly transgressed industry rules. “There are several scenarios: one is the company may not have been aware but the auditors may have colluded and tried to cook up the figures.

“Another possibility is the company and the auditors may have been aware that something was not becoming, but because of the profit and the lucrativeness they might have overlooked such a risk. Or the firm was presented with wrong facts.”

In its survey, the AEPF sought to examine the principles that determine what action is taken in these scenarios. In its 2014 white paper on the intimidation of whistle-blowers within the internal auditing industry, the Institute of Internal Auditors of South Africa noted that: “Internal auditors play a vital role in upholding accountability, transparency, fairness and improving competence within organisations. As such, they are the defenders of good values and excellence, and fall within the ranks of those who serve the public interest. By their very nature, internal auditors play a role in strengthening the whistle-blowing culture.”

Private sector whistle-blowers more confident of protection

The survey sought respondents’ views on both the private and public sectors. Most respondents came from banking and insurance, followed by the services sector, while public officials made up just under 10%. One finding was that leaders in the public sector were perceived to be less ethical than their private sector counterparts, a point that caught Lewis’s attention. “I’m interested and pleased to learn that the members of the professions surveyed here have such high regard for their professional bodies. I have to say that we haven’t found them so forthcoming.

“I recall an attempt by us to refer the conduct of a well-known law firm to one of the law societies.  The conduct of this law firm had been at the receiving end of a scathing high court judgment and a specific request by the court that its conduct be examined by the law society. Nothing had been done. And so we referred it to the law society, only to discover that the lawyer concerned was a senior office bearer of the law society in question.”

The AEPF did note that this result may lean a lot on exposure, as most of the survey’s respondents were professionals in the private sector, with limited or no relationship with public sector leadership. “Professionals were more prone to report unethical behaviour anonymously, which indicates some discomfort reporting unethical behaviour in their organisations.” Private sector whistle-blowers are rewarded to a greater degree for reporting unethical behaviour than are professionals in the public sector, and are also more confident of protection from leadership.

“Unfortunately, fearmongering, intimidation and threatening behaviour towards professionals who want to report unethical behaviour affect a larger proportion of professionals in the public sector than the private sector. Additionally, professionals working in the public sector are less familiar and comfortable with ethics complaint procedures in their organisations when compared to their private sector counterparts,” reads the survey document.