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Now that there is formal legislation governing corporate financial responsibility in reporting, two critical questions are whether the numerous seminars are helpful and how effective will it be in causing the desired reform.

Since July's enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, many organizations and companies are producing Sarbanes-Oxley Act-related seminars and continuing professional education courses, live and online. The pressing question is whether these seminars are valuable tools or not.

The fact of the matter is that these seminars are extremely valuable tools in developing a greater appreciation of the terms and nuances of the Act. More than that, these seminars call attention to the fact that this is a landmark move that demands more than lip service. There are a lot of provision that touch on many aspects of business, governance, management, finance and accounting (in several senses of the word) and these are the first layer of developing the knowledge and understanding needed to operate large public businesses through a new form of oversight.

From these trainings, professionals and leaders will be able to get immediate, first-hand answers to the initial questions -- answers that will build understanding of what's involved and some approaches to responsible attention to details.

Still, there are other practices that need to be and should be implemented to accompany attendance at these seminars -- seminars that seem to be popping up all over the corporate and financial landscape.

In addition to initial in-house trainings for HR and second-level managers, there should be coaching that goes into the daily work product to ensure that these practices are part of the routine. Managers lead by how they conduct themselves; their staff takes their cue on what is important and how to do things based on how managers handle situations. Thus, managers should incorporate into their routine, a pattern of following good practices.

There should also be an emphasis on understanding what is being done and why, and how it affects end results. This understanding by staff should not be a parroting of principles but full appreciation of what is at the heart of the report. Managers should determine whether that conceptualization is there in a number of ways.

One example is when reports are presented to a partner or manager, there should not be a rubber stamp approval. Managers need to take the time to actually review the document(s) and ask questions about numbers -- and even sources of information -- to ensure reliability of the information. If there are red flag issues, they should be addressed. Staff should be put on notice that those types of issues are important and encouraged to report them so that matters are rectified and problems abated.

The Act holds not only corporate officers accountable but also employees of the company, in addition to contractors. In other words, each person who produces product for the company comes under the purview of the regulations. Managers need to make themselves and their staff sensitive and attentive to that.

As to executive compensation committees and compensation professionals, there also needs to be an emphasis on rewarding for actual work. And better research on what the appropriate numbers are when it comes to compensation packages compared with the state of the rest of the company needs to be done so that packages are not bloated.

It's imperative that all level of personnel realize company profits and compensation benefits accrue at all levels. Thus, care needs to be taken to ensure not just paper viability but actual viability of an organization.

Most importantly, it is essential that when a person at any level of the company reports or questions a situation that has a "false ring" that the they not suffer overt or subtle retaliation in order to force them out of their position or out of the company for having spoken. That is at the heart of the Act -- being aware of when something inappropriate is happening so that it can be short circuited immediately.

But when whistle blowing occurs, it's usually because no one at any level of the corporation paid heed to the notice that was given. The matter had to be ratched up to a government agency that has more authority and oversight. So, better to have the attentive employee and responsibly investigate the matter they bring up. Then properly report and handle the issue so things don't escalate to a need to blow a whistle.

I'll go one step further in this analysis. The Act addresses responsibility of publicly-traded companies. Corporate leaders and managers, accounting and finance managers of not only publicly traded but also private companies and medium and small businesses should be paying attention to the terms of the Act. I project that it is a business watershed. That is to say, we are starting with the publicly traded companies that are under this purview. But in time, these standards need to be and will be part of the standard governance for all businesses, no matter what size and regardless of the status of its shares -- public or private -- or whether they even have shares.

The more these practices are put in place now by all businesses, and done with an appreciation of the issues, the better we will be in terms of workplace trust, healthy business growth and fair competition.

Also see the Periodicals research section of the CERA Library


Originally published October 8, 2002