Posted: May 25th, 2022
The dilemma that Dan faces juxtaposes his loyalty to what are portrayed as his company’s interests and to what are his own interests. Dan knows that the company is overstating the value of the property and that Oliver has acted against the long-run best interests of the company, but in favor of the short-run best interests of the company. That Oliver has already issued the negative opinion about Dan’s performance has made the issue a personal one. Resolving the dilemma is complicated in that Dan has no direct evidence of his conversations with Oliver; he does have, however, his report and the version that Oliver submitted. Dan is unsure about the degree to which his interests and the interests of the company are aligned — if Oliver is right then Dan has a dilemma but if Oliver is wrong then Dan does not have a dilemma. Dan is faced less with an ethical dilemma than he is with a problem relating to asymmetry of information. He needs to work with the information he has to analyze the situation objectively before coming to a decision about how to pursue a resolution.
There are several stakeholders in this scenario. The most important stakeholder is Dan Potter. Dan is facing the following situation. His career is already in jeopardy as a result of Oliver’s performance review. That review contains what could politely be termed as a misrepresentation of Dan’s performance. Dan’s is conflicted because he wants to preserve his career, but is unsure of the best approach. He has loyalty to his company as part of his ethical code, and is unsure of what the ramifications of that loyalty might be. Dan must consider his career, his obligation to the firm, his obligation to his (future) family. The biggest dilemma Dan faces is with respect to the uncertainty of his outcomes for the different courses of action he could take. He was always at risk, however — Oliver had essentially threatened to scapegoat Dan if there were any problems of any type in the report.
The second stakeholder is the firm of Baker Greenleaf. The company earns most of its income from consulting fees, and its auditing work is an adjunct to that. This creates an inherent conflict of interest and despite the strong words of Sen. Metcalf this conflict of interest is presently allowed under law. The company’s primary interest is to act on behalf of its owners — the firm’s partners. Oliver is not a partner. The firm has an interest, therefore, in maintaining good relationships with its clients. The assumption that underlies Oliver’s argument is that both Baker Greenleaf and the client benefit from having clean audit’s, whether or not they are warranted. This assumption is not correct, particularly not if the long-term perspective is taken, but in the short-run it may appear to be correct. A scandal would, however, cost both the client and the firm substantial amounts of money and prestige. A scandal could be initiated by a potential buyer for the property. It is presumed that the company is aware of this, and does not genuinely intend to sell the property.
The third stakeholder is the client. The client is at risk from both the material misstatement and from the potential scandal that could result if the property is discovered to be overvalued. The company is unlikely to sell the property, as that transaction could trigger discovery of the fraud. The main risk faced by the client, then, is of the misstatement being revealed during an audit. This could result in legal difficulties and a loss of reputation. A fourth stakeholder is Oliver. His interest is in maintaining the status quo, which he apparently believes benefits his career. If his actions are deemed by the company to be undesirable, his career could be in jeopardy — he could even face loss of his license to practice if he is found guilty of fraudulent audit practice.
Of these stakeholders, the firm’s partners are the only ones with true persuasive power. They have the sole ability to decide what they do with any information that Dan presents to them — they can choose a course of action that costs them the client because they only have a financial obligation to themselves. Their persuasive power overrides that of the client. Dan is concerned that Oliver has more persuasive power than he does, but that is not necessarily the case.
Analysis and Recommendation.
There are a number of ways that Dan can analyze this situation, as different ethical schools of thought can yield different opinions about Dan’s best options. The first option is to analyze the situation strictly in terms of the letter of the law. Under this situation the actions of Oliver are illegal and if his actions are supported by the firm then the firm could also face legal difficulties. The client would likely also face legal trouble if Dan decided to take his concerns to an external entity. Dan would have the satisfaction of being right, but he would also likely lose his job if not his auditing career, no matter what the legal outcome of the case might be.
Consequentialist perspectives rely on the outcomes of the situation to determine the ethics. If Dan comes forward with his version of the story, most of the outcomes are going to be negative. Dan will lose his job or even career and the firm and the client could both suffer as well. Oliver would suffer, but presumably that is not a major consideration for Dan. The positive outcome, however, would be for the auditing profession as a whole. Sen. Metcalf has outlined the case against the types of auditing practices in evidence in this case, and Dan understands that the integrity of the economic system relies in part on the integrity of the auditing process. He is committed to maintaining that integrity. Arguably, the integrity of the system as a whole is more important than any outcome for either himself or the firm. If Dan weighs the ethics of the issue based strictly on outcomes to the narrow range of stakeholders, then the consequentialist perspective would argue that Dan keep quiet and work to rebuild his reputation within the firm. Taking the broader view relating to the role of auditing in the economy would shift his outlook to a utilitarian perspective, and taking that perspective Dan should raise his concerns with an external body.
Taking a deontological perspective would require Dan to make the determination of the ethics of the case on the basis of a categorical imperative. In classical deontology, this often relates to religious or moral imperatives. Such a view would imply that fraud is a wrong act, and therefore Dan should go public. Sen. Metcalf has clearly highlighted that government considers such fraud a significant issue. Kantian deontology relies more on the morality of the motive behind the actions to determine their ethical goodness. For example, if Dan goes public with the fraud, why he does so would be the determining factor in the ethics of the situation. If he does so in order to punish Oliver and enhance his own career, the action would be less ethically sound than if he does so in order to preserve the integrity of the auditing profession and the broader economic system. Knowing that he is likely sacrificing his own career in order to preserve this integrity lends moral credence to the act, because he does not stand to make significant gains as the result of his actions.
The recommendation then is to take the issue public, to the firm’s senior partners. Dan’s dilemma stems in large from his belief that he still has significant personal upside that would be compromised by going public with his concerns. This is not likely the case. Oliver’s performance report has damaged his standing in the firm, very early in his career. It will be difficult to overcome this without discrediting Oliver. If he goes public and the firm’s partners side with Oliver, then Dan never had a career to begin with. If Dan goes public and the partners side with him, then perhaps he can salvage something for himself. Taking a broader, deontological or utilitarian approach, Dan needs to go forward simply because it is the right thing to do. That it is also the only way to salvage his career — if he truly was going to have one at all — is coincidental, a happy side effect. The greatest good is the preservation of the auditing practice. Dan understands this in his own moral convictions, and it corresponds with the letter of the law and with the moral imperative as identified by Sen. Metcalf.
The impact of Dan going to the senior partners is unknown — this is the source of his dilemma. If the senior partners side with Oliver, then Dan will lose his job, but this has effectively occurred already. The company may benefit in the short-term, but does nothing to change its long-term risk, the risk the client and the damage done to the profession. If the partners side with Dan, then it is likely that the firm will lose the client. The client may suffer somewhat, and Oliver almost certainly will. However at this point it is the right of the senior partners to choose to lose the client. The outcome for Dan is uncertain — his status in the company could increase. Either way, he must reconcile his actions with his internal moral sensibility, and knowing that he adhered to the letter and spirit of the law and the profession’s guidelines should provide him with, if nothing else, satisfaction of having done the right thing. If he loses his job as a result, he should at least come away from the experience understanding that the auditing profession is perhaps not the place for a person with a strong sense of ethics.
It is difficult, however, to accurately assess the impacts to the stakeholders. Even the loss of the client’s business is theoretical. The client may have come to Baker Greenleaf because its other auditor wanted to write the property down, meaning that the company gains nothing by firing Baker Greenleaf. The outcomes to the profession and the economy are also entirely theoretical. It is this information vacuum that makes Dan’s decision so difficult. He does not even know the outcome for himself, let alone any of the other stakeholders.
The fact that Dan has little information or insight with which to determine the outcomes for the different stakeholder groups highlights the difficulty in using any consequentialist outlook to resolve this situation. Dan therefore must rely on input-oriented ethical perspectives such as the legal perspective or the deontological perspective to justify his actions. The unknown consequences also highlight that Dan needs to make his decision without concern for the consequences — he cannot worry about that which he cannot anticipate. He should be ready for disappointment, but he should not fear disappointment. He still has a trump card to play in that Sen. Metcalf can be expected to take an interest in Dan’s story even if Dan is fired from his job as the result of coming forward. This is where Kant enters the picture — if Dan is truly acting out of interest for the profession as a whole and for the greater good of the economy, he has not only the senior partners but people within government to support his cause. If he is simply acting out of a desire to preserve his fledgling career, then Dan will have to make his decision more carefully.
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