Half of business leaders would fiddle numbers to meet targets

Despite a string of high-profile accounting scandals, many execs wouldn't have qualms about adjusting financial performance.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2016

It's not particularly reassuring to hear that over a quarter (28%) of senior UK business leaders feel corruption is widespread in the country. It's one thing hearing speculation coming from Joe Bloggs and another to hear it straight from CEOs and CFOs running some of the nation's biggest firms.

Less reassuring still are the muddied waters about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. The numbers come from an EY survey of nearly 3,000 execs across 62 countries and should raise a few eyebrows. While most said they wouldn’t ignore unethical conduct by staff or third-parties, nearly 40% said they’d be prepared to make some form of adjustment to the presentation of financial performance to meet targets or safeguard a company’s economic survival. 

All too often such 'adjustments' can mark the start of a slippery slope. It's not as if we don’t have enough cautionary tales of number fiddling taken to the extreme. From Tesco to Toshiba, there’s a long list of firms which have taken a reputational (and financial) hammering when their accounting scandals unravelled.

Despite evidence of some very blurred lines indeed, only 2% of UK respondents felt corruption was a significant issue within their own industry. That could be a case of turning a blind eye, being blissfully naive or simply claiming it’s someone else’s problem. It doesn't though, line up with the execs' own personal experience of misconduct at work – 22% said they had concerns about fraud, bribery and corruption at their place of employment.

It's also often difficult dealing with third parties. An OECD report from last year found that from 427 foreign bribery cases, most were committed by third parties such as agents and intermediaries. And the vast majority – 98% – of UK respondents think it’s important to know who ultimately owns and controls the entities they do business with.

There's not a sure-fire way of staying squeaky clean, but it's clear that businesses need to do more to clamp down on unethical behaviour. It's simply not worth the costly clear up afterwards - just ask Tesco. 

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