Next, I want to consider some of the issues around internal controls outside the US and why your company’s internal controls might require changes for different countries across the globe. However, this provides an opportunity to further operationalize your compliance program through internal controls more narrowly tailored to mirror your business practices.

Every Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) should consider your entity-wide internal controls for a company. Under the FCPA accounting provisions, issuers can be held liable for the conduct of their foreign subsidiaries, even though the improper conduct occurred outside of the US. The scope of liability is based on the issuer’s incorporation of the subsidiary’s financial statements in its own records and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. So, as with the use of third party distributors to sell product, FCPA enforcement looks past the structure of the transaction and makes enforcement decisions based upon the substance.

While a CCO should expect (or at least hope) that internal controls at locations outside the US are of the same effectiveness as internal controls within US business units and at the US corporate office; unfortunately, that might not always be the case. It is often the case that corporate level internal controls are stronger than those in foreign business units. There may well be several reasons for this. First, the company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) may be paying closer attention to the corporate level internal controls, with the idea that the corporate level internal controls are the final “filter” to detect issues. This follows partly from the focus in most companies on the controls over financial reporting, which does not include all controls needed for compliance. A second reason is that many companies were built through acquisitions, resulting in many business units (both in and outside the US) having completely different accounting and internal control systems than the corporate office. There is often a tendency to leave acquired companies in the state in which they were acquired, rather than trying to integrate their controls and conform them to those of current business units. After all, the reason for the acquisition was the profitability of the acquired company and nobody wants to be accused of negatively impacting profitability.

A third situation may exist at locations outside the US that began simply as a sales office.  Then the location gradually expanded its scope of operations to become a full scope business unit with its own accounting and data processing functions. Unfortunately, it is not often the situation in which there was a master plan for internal controls as the location’s scope grew.  Often processes were added internally and were usually designed by the local personnel that in practice meant the Country Manager had total control over financial affairs and was not really accountable to the Corporate Office. This can be particularly true as long as a country business unit’s profits continue. In such situations, there will rarely be any focus on effective preventive internal controls for compliance risk.

The next area for inquiry is where should a CCO begin in any of the above scenarios? The initial first step is to determine the extent of centralization or decentralization of relevant processes or put another way, to what extent are relevant processes performed at the corporate offices? In some companies it is common, for example, to have all vendor invoices paid from the corporate office. In other companies, the corporate accounting function only aggregates information received from business unit accounting departments. This translates into a varying analysis of risk regarding locations outside the US, depending on the degree of accounting decentralization. A good starting point is to determine the extent to which the financial statements of business units outside the US are reviewed and analyzed by the corporate accounting function. This will give good insight into whether the corporate accounting function provides an element of internal control or merely serves as a data aggregator.

The first step for the CCO is to determine the possible universe of risks and to assess the risks to result in a priority of how attention will be focused. One useful approach advocated is performing a Location Risk Assessment, whose purpose is to capture in one place each location outside the US where your company conducts business and to assess the compliance risks posed by the nature of operations at each location. Once the risks at each location have been properly categorized, you can then prioritize your approach to dealing with the risks.

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Modifying your internal controls can work to more fully operationalize your compliance program.
  2. Check the effectiveness of your internal controls for your international locations.
  3. Revisit your internal controls when a country or region experience large growth or other disruption.

For more information on how to improve your internal controls management process, visit this month’s sponsor Workiva at workiva.com.

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