Assessing Internal Controls IIn this blog post I continue my exploration of how you should assess your compliance internal controls using the Committee of Sponsoring Organization of the Treadway Organization (COSO), publication “Internal Controls – Integrated Framework, Illustrative Tools for Assessing Effectiveness of a System of Internal Controls” (herein ‘the Illustrative Guide’), as a starting point and basis for discussion. You will recall from my series on compliance internal controls under the COSO 2013 Framework there are five objectives: (1) Control Environment; (2) Risk Assessment; (3) Control Activities; (4) Information and Communication; and (5) Monitoring Activities. Today I will review issues around compliance internal control assessments on Control Environment and Risk Assessments.

First are some general definitions that you need to consider in your evaluation. A compliance internal control must be both present and functioning. A control is present if the “components and relevant principles exist in the design and implementation of the system of [compliance] internal control to achieve the specified objective.” A compliance internal control is functioning if the “components and relevant principles continue to exist in the conduct of the system of [compliance] internal controls to achieve specified objectives.”

I. Control Environment

Under the objective of Control Environment there are five principles which you will need to assess. The five principles are:

  1. The organization demonstrates a commitment to integrity and ethical values. Here you can look to see if there is a training program to help make employees cognizant of the importance of doing business ethically and in compliance with the standard’s of your company’s Code of Conduct. Also is there specific training on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or other relevant anti-corruption/anti-bribery legislation which may govern your organization? Next does your company have in place any process to evaluate “individuals against published integrity and ethics policy”? Finally, do you have in place any process to “identify and address deviations in the organization”?
  2. The board of directors demonstrates independence from management and exercises oversight of the development and performance of internal control. Under this Principle you must DOCUMENT the active involvement of your company’s Board of Directors. So not only must risk assessments be performed and evaluated by senior management, they must also be evaluated by the Board, separate and apart from senior management. A Board must also document its review of any remediation plans and monitoring activities.
  3. Management establishes, with board oversight, structures, reporting lines and appropriate authorities and responsibility in pursuit of the objectives. This Principle deals primarily with reporting lines and structures so you will need to consider not only the structure of your business but also whether or not both clear and sufficient reporting lines have been established throughout the company. The next analysis is to move down the chain to see if there definitions and assignments for your compliance function. Lastly you need to assess whether there are sufficient parameters around the responsibilities of the compliance function and if there are limitations which should be addressed.
  4. The organization demonstrates a commitment to attract, develop and retain competent individuals in alignment with the objectives. Under this Principle you will need to review the policies and procedures to make sure you have the minimum required under a best practices compliance program and then evaluate and address any shortcomings. This Principle also has a more personnel focus by requiring you to consider whether your organization attracts, develops and retains sufficient compliance personnel and is there an appropriate succession plan in place if someone ‘wins the lottery’ on the way to work.
  5. The organization holds individuals accountable for their internal control responsibilities in the pursuit of the objective. Under this Principle review is required to determine whether the Board established and communicated the mechanisms to hold employees accountable for your compliance internal controls. As suggested in the FCPA Guidance, there should be both a carrot and stick approach, so for the carrot is there some type of Board, senior management or employee compensation based on whether they did their assignments in compliance with your Code of Conduct or are bonuses based strictly on a sales formulation? For the stick, have any employees ever been disciplined under your compliance regimes?

II. Risk Assessment

This objective has four Principles that require assessment. They are (numbers follow the COSO Framework):

  1. The organization specifies objectives with sufficient clarity to enable the identification and assessment of risks relating to objectives which include Operations Objectives, External Financial Reporting Objectives, External Non-Financial Reporting Objectives, Internal Reporting Objectives and Compliance Objectives. Here I think the key is the documentation of several different topics and issues relating to your company and how it operations. This means you will need to assess such diverse concepts as what are your senior management’s choices for business and compliance? You will need to consider and assess tolerances for risk as demonstrated by such issues as operations and financial performance goals. Finally, it can be used as a basis for committing of compliance resources going forward.
  2. The organization identifies risks to the achievement of its objectives across the entity and analyzes risks as a basis for determining how the risks should be managed. This Principle requires you to take a look at not only your compliance organization but also your business structure including entity, subsidiary, division, operating unit, and functional levels. You should assess the involvement of your compliance function at each point identified and the appropriate levels of management therein. Finally, from the compliance perspective, you should attempt to estimate not only the significance of compliance risks identified in the risk assessment but also determine how to respond to such identified compliance risks.
  3. The organization considers the potential for fraud in assessing risks to the achievement of objectives. Bribery and corruption can be categorized as forms of fraud. Rather than being fraud against the company to obtain personal benefits it can be fraud in the form of bribery and corruption of foreign government officials. For the compliance internal control assessment around this Principle I would urge you to ‘follow the money’ in your organization and consider the mechanisms by which employees can generate the funds sufficient to pay bribes. Many of these are simply fraud schemes so you should consider this within the compliance context and assess incentive and pressures on employees to make their numbers or be fired. You should also assess your employees’ attitudes and rationalizations regarding same.
  4. The organization identifies and assesses changes that could significantly impact the system of internal control. This Principle speaks to the need of your organization to maintain personnel competent to use the risk assessment going forward. But it also requires you to assesses changes in the external environment, assess changes in the business model or other significant business changes and, finally, to consider any changes in compliance leadership and how that would impact this Principle.

I often say that good compliance is simply good business. These COSO objectives are not only important from the compliance perspective but they also speak to the issue of overall process in your organization. The more you can burn these activities into the DNA of your company, the better run your organization will be going forward. Auditing against the COSO standards will provide your management with greater information on the health of your organization and satisfy your legal requirements under the FCPA.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2015

0 comments