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The need for organisations to be able to protect themselves has never been greater. Businesses are increasingly exposed to risk from cyber attacks or digital and data weaknesses.

Meanwhile, companies are striving to boost their environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials in a bid to secure the trust of increasingly switched-on consumers, investors and regulators.

The role

Investigations are largely internal and run by an in-house function or by a third party, such as a professional services firm, or a combination of the two. Teams will often work closely with legal and compliance departments, as needed.

And while forensic accounting might form part of an investigation, the scope can be far broader, depending on the size and reach of the entity. Furthermore, forensic investigators are not to be confused, as they can be, with internal auditors.

Investigations can cover such areas as white collar crime and regulatory breaches, fraud, bribery and corruption, human slavery, intellectual property, cyber threats and security, intellectual property and corporate intelligence.

The work involves compiling detailed evidence that can come in a variety of forms — cross-company data, digital fingerprints (emails, text messages, social media, etc), interviews, and so on — much in the same way that police gather evidence.

Indeed, the board-level reports investigators produce can be admissible to courts as evidence, while investigators themselves can be expert witnesses that provide legal testimony.

Investigations require urgency, so management can quickly take appropriate action. However, it’s also essential that the quality of an investigation and its product are not compromised in the name of urgency.

‘There is a responsibility to discover what, when, why, where and how an incident transpired. The role requires providing facts on a case, not opinions. We need to report how an incident happened and have an objective mindset without being biased,’ says Balwinder Singh FCCA, who works for the forensic and investigation department at Prasarana, a state-owned public infrastructure company in Malaysia.

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Key skills

Accountants are well suited to investigative roles. Investigators need a strong ethical and moral compass so as not to be easily swayed, misled or discouraged. They work in the public as well as the corporate interest.

They must take a careful and methodical approach to their work, have attention to detail and keen observational skills, and be highly curious, inquisitive and analytical. They must be fastidious recorders and cataloguers of evidence, which can require sharp IT and data analytics skills.

They also need to work well in teams and be able to coordinate with other departments, third-party service providers or external entities, such as courts, regulators or the police. Therefore strong communication skills are essential.

It’s also vital to have a ‘thinking outside the box’ mindset, says Singh. ‘No one case is the same, so how you approach each case can vary. It’s important to be adaptable and think on your feet.’

Getting in and getting on

Many consulting firms, including the Big Four, specialise in this area, so practice can be a good place to start, either directly in this service channel or often via auditing. Alternatively, you can move into the specialism from a corporate background of internal audit, where you’ll have gained experience conducting assignments before moving into an investigative role.

Ultimately, you need to research the generally expected skills, experience and qualifications, and work your way towards the specialism. You might do this by upskilling via secondments or job shadowing; or by taking online courses such as that provided by ACCA, which focuses on forensic accounting and provides a step in the right direction.

It is possible to move from this field into other specialisms such as compliance, governance, integrity or internal audit, but many people enjoy investigatory work and stick with it. The specialism provides the opportunity to move into roles with greater responsibility at bigger companies or global service providers, or to specialise in specific sectors or types of cases.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Author: Neil Johnson, journalist

This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine September 2021​

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