The updated Framework retained the core definition of internal controls; those being control environment, risk assessment, control activities, information and communication, and monitoring activities. However, it built up Objectives. The 17 principles represent fundamental concepts associated with the five components of internal control. Together, the Objectives and Principles constitute the criteria will guide companies in assessing whether the components of internal controls are present, functioning and operating together within their organization.
The first of the five objectives is Control Environment and it sets the tone for the implementation and operation of all other components of internal control. It begins with the ethical commitment of senior management, oversight by those in governance, and a commitment to competent employees. The five principles of the Control Environment object are as follows:
Principle 1 – The organization demonstrates a commitment to integrity and ethical values.
Principle 2 – The board of directors demonstrates independence from management and exercises oversight of the development and performance of internal control.
Principle 3 – Management establishes with board oversight, structures, reporting lines and appropriate authorizes and responsibility in pursuit of the objectives.
Principle 4 – The organization demonstrates a commitment to attract, develop and retain competent individuals in alignment with the objectives.
Principle 5 – The organization holds individuals accountable for their internal control responsibilities in the pursuit of the objective.
What are the characteristics of this Principle? First, and foremost, is that an entity must have the appropriate tone at the top for a commitment to ethics and doing business in compliance. It also means that an organization establishes standards of conduct through the creation of a Code of Conduct or another baseline document. The next step is to demonstrate adherence to this standard of conduct by individual employees and throughout the organization. Finally, if there are any deviations, they would be addressed by the company in a timely manner. From the auditing perspective, this requires an auditor to be able to assess if a company has the met its requirements to ethics and compliance and whether that commitment can be effectively measured and assessed.
This Principle requires that a company’s Board of Directors establish oversight of a compliance function, separate and apart from the company’s senior management so that it operates independently in the compliance arena. Next there should be compliance expertise at the Board level which allows it actively to manage its function. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a Board must actively provide oversight on all compliance control activities, risk assessments, compliance control activities, information, compliance communications and compliance monitoring activities. Here, internal auditors must interact with a Board’s Compliance Committee (or other relevant committee such as the Audit Committee) to determine independence. There must also be documented evidence that the Board’s Compliance Committee provides sufficient oversight of the company’s compliance function.
This may not seem as obvious but it is critical that a compliance reporting line go up through and to the Board. Under this Principle, you will need to consider all the structures of your organization and then move to define the appropriate roles of compliance responsibility. Finally, this Principle requires establishment of the appropriate authority within the compliance function. Here your auditors must be able to assess whether compliance responsibilities are appropriately assigned to establish accountability.
This Principle gets into the nuts and bolts of doing compliance. It requires that a company establish compliance policies and procedures. Next there must be an evaluation of the effectiveness of those compliance policies and procedures and that any demonstrated shortcomings be addressed. This Principle next turns the human component of a compliance program. A company must attract, develop and retain competent employees in the compliance function. Lastly, a company should have a demonstrable compliance succession plan in place. An auditor must be able to demonstrate, through its compliance policies and, equally importantly its actions, that it has a commitment to attracting, developing and retaining competent persons in the compliance function and more generally employees who accept the company’s general principle of doing business ethically and in compliance.
This is the ‘stick’ Principle. A company must show that it enforces compliance accountability through its compliance structures, authorities and responsibilities. A company must establish appropriate compliance performance metrics, incentives to do business ethically and in compliance and, finally, clearly reward such persons through the promotion process in an organization. Such reward is through an evaluation of appropriate compliance measures and incentives. Interestingly a company must consider pressures that it sends through off-messaging. Finally, each employee must be evaluated in his or her compliance performance; coupled with both rewards and discipline for employee actions around compliance. This Principle requires evidence that can demonstrate to an auditor there are processes in place to hold employees accountable to their compliance objectives. Conversely, if an employee does not fulfill the compliance objectives there must be identifiable consequences. Lastly, if this accountability is not effective, the internal controls should be able to identify and manage the compliance risks that are not effectively mitigated.
Both Board of Directors’ independence and Compliance Committee (or other applicable committee) oversight issue are essential to this Objective because the Compliance Committee needs to be actively engaged to be comfortable that the company has implemented the internal controls under Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) 404(a); as required under Principles 1 & 2. The external auditors must then be comfortable this requirement is met. Finally, there must be evidence the company has appropriate disclosure controls in place because that is central to the Objective itself. This is all tested against Board independence and Compliance Committee oversight over those activities that management has undertaken and their engagement and conversations with their external auditor.
Howell related that under Principle 3, “structures in reporting lines, authority and responsibility are essential to the recognition of revenue. An entity’s internal controls or financial reporting details there are processes, there are policies, there is documentation, the authority and documentation of the judgments are being made, the review of those in responsibility for making those ultimate judgments about the recognition of revenue and the recognition or timing of the revenue and the expenses, that those need to be in place.”
Under Principle 4, a business must attract and develop, then retaining competent talent. Of course, this is good business as well. But it is more than simply some appropriate levels of staffing, as Howell stated, “One of the big reasons that companies have said do not have money to invest again the deep dive study and process improvement necessary to implement it [the 2013 Framework], is that it comes down to both to commitment level from the top and the tone at the top that this important and these financial disclosures are critical to the ability of the investors to rely on the company’s disclosures.” You must only “put in place the right team, give the team the right tools, but also ensure the team has the ability to access the right level of technical accounting talent and business process and controls talent to make the judgments.”
All these leads of course ties into Principle 5, which mandates individuals being held responsible. This requires someone to document that they have made a judgment based upon the evidence that they have been able to accumulate, that the company has analyzed that evidence and has gone through the process of comparing this to the COSO 2013 Framework and to the spirit of the standard. Howell said, “those individuals are being held responsible for having done that properly. I think when you tie all that back together, when you get to the control environment, that the COSO principle number one is it can be completely tied back to what is being required.”
Three Key Takeaways
- What controls do you have in place to measure conduct at the top?
- Reporting lines must be clear and functioning.
- You must provide the right personnel with the right resources.
For more information on how to improve your internal controls management process, visit this month’s sponsor Workiva at workiva.com