You’ve just discovered your boss is a crook. Now what?

Uncovering something illegal going on in your company may be one of the most challenging situations you will face in your career. So what do you do if you find out your boss is involved in dodgy dealings?

John Smith* was the head of the finance and accounting team at his company when he discovered his boss was committing fraud.

“She defrauded the company, I found out about it and was left to tidy it all up,” he says. “It was a nightmare.”

Gathering evidence

On uncovering the dodgy dealings, Smith’s first thought was “what if I’m wrong?” Even though it’s there in black and white in front of you, it’s a once-in-a-career experience, he says. “What if I break the trust with my boss? That’s my time in that job over.”

Once you make it formal, there will be some impact on you, he adds. “I tried to get as much evidence as I could before taking it further”. He says he wanted to get a feel for her attitude – and in this case, her dismissive response was another red flag.

“Then I went to her boss because I didn’t know who else to ask. It was a big call for me personally, to call out my boss to her boss, especially if I had got it wrong.” Smith says he knows he did the right thing in voicing his concerns, but looking back now, he would have taken a few different steps.

Taking on the investigation

Because of his position at the company, senior management asked Smith to do more investigation into the situation and present it.

“I saw it as an opportunity for me to be helpful, and possibly get a promotion. I was encouraged to do it because it was a good opportunity.” He found himself in a very difficult situation – looking further into the fraud he had uncovered, while still performing his day-to-day role. “I shouldn’t have taken it all on,” says Smith.

“I burned out because I was doing two jobs. In hindsight, they should have brought people in to investigate. The worst moment was when I presented my findings to the corporate lawyers. My boss and her husband were in the room at the time. I didn’t know how she was going to react. It was so stressful.”

Getting support

Eventually, it got to the point where he knew he couldn’t do both jobs anymore. He didn’t get the recognition or reward he had worked so hard for, as the directors of the company felt like they would be rewarding him for something negative.

“I left the company in a cloud,” says Smith. “Because I did all the work – the overtime and the late nights – I was just completely worn out.” He resigned and joined a start-up to retake control of his career.

More than 10 years on, Smith says the situation still affects him. “It’s important that people hear this story because they are rare experiences.” He urges anyone that finds themselves in the same position to get support. “Share the burden or the responsibility of the situation,” he advises. “If you can be aware of what to do, and be brave enough to do it, you’ve done an amazing thing. It might take you by surprise one day.”

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Spotting fraudulent activity

Mike O’Neill is the managing director of Optimal Risk Group, which provides risk management consulting services to help businesses be prepared for a “crisis”. These services include helping them avoid fraud and illegal activities, but also setting them up with the right plan to respond if a situation does arise.

O’Neill explains that accountants, who deal with different types of financial information, could come across many kinds of fraud.

A whistle-blowing policy

“It’s always very challenging for someone to find themselves in that position,” says O’Neill. “Sometimes, senior management will just be looking to solve the situation and move on quickly. There will be a certain amount of embarrassment that the situation was allowed to occur. They don’t want it to be seen as evidence of poor management.”

Corporate culture comes into it, O’Neill adds – businesses should be thinking about how they will respond to an incident like this. “This should be part of their crisis management planning. They should make it a positive thing – for them to say ‘someone tried to commit fraud in our company, but fortunately, it was picked up’.

O’Neill says businesses should have a whistle-blowing policy in place, and that this should be communicated to staff. “A whistle-blowing policy is important so that people have some formal guidance about voicing concerns.” If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to report something, start with consulting your organisation’s policy manual for information.

Protect yourself

Self-protection is essential – make sure you thoroughly understand the situation and have as many facts as possible. Use your instincts. Know what your options are and how your decision will affect the involved parties. Then approach someone trustworthy, who will handle the situation in a sensitive manner, O’Neill advises. “If you have a concern about your line manager, you should look to someone higher up that you have a relationship with – someone you can trust – and report the issue. You need to trust that you will be treated sensitively.”

Communicate that you have a “concern” about the person, O’Neill adds; do not declare that the person is a fraudster. “By raising it as a concern, it allows normal relationships to be resumed.” Depending on the situation, he also recommends that you should be as reserved as possible when voicing the concern. “Raise the concern in an unemotional way,” he says.  

What to do if you suspect your boss of wrongdoing

  • Use your instincts and make sure you are protecting yourself
  • Collect as much information and as many facts as possible
  • Approach someone you trust and raise the concern discreetly.

Further reading:

*Name has been changed to protect contributors privacy.

The content team are the owners of AAT Comment.

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