Invoice dates in the age of electronic billing

So as not to come off as too unreasonable or difficult on Twitter, a longer explanation of recent tweets is likely helpful.

I tweeted this to Rogers, one of Canada’s big telecom companies:

Every month, I’m billed for my mobile phone service and cable TV on the 11th. Rogers bills in advance of the services being performed, but that’s a subject for another day.

The problem is, I usually don’t have access to the bill until much, much later. When it’s available, I get a notification email.

I started to wonder whether this is a process issue with invoicing (i.e. producing a complete and accurate invoice), or perhaps an interface issue between their usage tracking system(s) and the customer-facing, web-based system. If I had to guess, I would think it’s probably the latter.

But it raises the question as to whether it’s appropriate to backdate the invoice when it’s clearly not created on the invoice date. The question becomes more pertinent when the customer is a business with payment terms based on the invoice date, but that’s not relevant here. (That does cause me to wonder whether it would be beneficial for B2C companies to offer their customers payment terms, but I’m guessing someone already ran the numbers on this.)

Thinking about cutoff, their revenue recognition would be based on when the services are rendered and the amounts are earned, so that takes us back to the fact that they’re billing in advance of those services, and thus that should be accounted for properly, irrespective of invoice dates.

In any case, on November 21 I received notification via email that my invoice was available online. Of course, it was dated November 11.

Finance managers are human has brought to my attention a survey conducted by the CEB of finance managers. They asked finance managers whether they believe their direct reports are “effective in the behaviors and skills that drive excellent performance by the finance function.” The title of’s article gave away the answer: Finance Leaders Bemoan Talent Shortage. Not only that, but they’re good at the stuff that sucks and suck at the stuff that’s good:

And on average, finance workers are more skilled in the areas that have the least positive impact on value creation.

You know how everyone likes to think they’re above average? Above average driver, above average intelligence, etc.? This is that. Finance managers believe they’re above average at their jobs, therefore those around them are likely below them, and possibly even below average. It’s OK. They’re human.

I also think there’s an element of confirmation bias at play. They’re finance managers, so they must be above average and have the skills and behaviours that the survey indicates is important.

But back to those hapless direct reports: First, who hired them? If it was those selfsame finance managers, shouldn’t that reflect poorly on their ability to assess competence and develop talent? Whose responsibility is it to put in place succession and training plans? (HR’s, they’d probably say, if surveyed about it.)

Overall, finance managers appear quite dissatisfied with the talent levels on their teams. [The CEB] acknowledges as much. “We weren’t particularly surprised that the ratings were so low,” she says. In fact, she adds, one reason CEB did a report on talent is that when it conducted its annual interviews with CFOs last year, 85 percent said talent was a major concern.

I’m not surprised either. This is never going to stop, until robots run companies completely. Even then we’ll probably sneak a “dissatisfied with direct report talent levels” easter egg into the code, just so robot CEB surveyors can have something to write about. What a chilling dystopian vision; I think the living will envy the dead.

Mercilessly, it continues:

Effective delegating is a capability many finance departments sorely need. “After the financial crisis, finance is overwhelmed with ad-hoc requests,” the report states.

If you’re delegating to staff that you don’t have (because they were all downsized during the recession), it isn’t going to be very effective. Perhaps that’s the reason they’re feeling overwhelmed?

There’s a reason why great people are hard to find: they’re scarce. And once found, smart managers do everything they can to keep them. As well, it’s highly likely those yearned-for “persuaders, strategists and builders” recognize a good situation when they have it. Perhaps that’s the most important takeaway here for finance managers. Build it, and they will come.

Light’s effect on integrity and honesty

Following an earlier post about how clean smells were correlated with more ethically minded decision making is this HBR post about good lighting encouraging the same thing:

In one laboratory experiment, we placed participants in a dimly or well-lit room and asked them to complete 20 math problems under time pressure. The participants received a cash bonus for every correct answer. Since we were interested in whether darkness affects cheating rates, we left it up to the participants to score their own work and to pay themselves from a supply of money they had received at the beginning of the study. While there was no difference in actual performance on the math problems, almost 61 percent of the participants in the slightly dim room cheated while “only” 24 percent of those in a well-lit room did. Eight additional fluorescent lights in the room where the study took place reduced dishonesty by about 37 percent.

They also performed the test based on the perception of lighting levels using sunglasses, and had similar results.

I anxiously await the results of a combination of smell and lighting!

But why stop there? What else in the sensory-ethics world can we adjust and test? Sounds? Tastes? Should we all be chewing mint gum every day and listening to waves crashing onto the shore?

The question is: could this be taken too far? How brutally honest do we want our co-workers to be with us? At least in the interests of getting along, perhaps some things are better left in the dark.

Slow down for better ethics

Interesting tidbit (and relevant for internal audit) from an article in the latest Economist on how taking time to make decisions results in getting the ethics right:

Slowing down makes us more ethical. When confronted with a clear choice between right and wrong, people are five times more likely to do the right thing if they have time to think about it than if they are forced to make a snap decision. Organizations with a “fast pulse” (such as banks) are more likely to suffer from ethical problems than those that move more slowly… The authors suggest that companies should make greater use of “cooling-off periods” or introduce several levels of approval for important decisions.

Several levels of approval for important decisions sounds like a fantastic idea to me. What I find is that too many decisions are made or approvals given orally in meetings, with scant evidence to support their existence later, in case of an audit. Surely introducing more rigor around this aspect of approvals would further improve ethical behaviour!

Delay even works in fields where time might seem to be of the essence. Doctors and pilots can profit from following a checklist, even when doing things they have done many times before. A list slows them down and makes them more methodical, as Atul Gawande describes in “The Checklist Manifesto”.

Now you’re beginning to see why this article prompted me to write a blog post for the first time in umpteen weeks! Not just levels of approval, but checklists too? Be still my beating heart!

Auditors have been employing checklists to improve quality for eons. It’s great to see articles like this extolling their virtues to all people and for all tasks.

Mystery payments at Canadian construction company

This is interesting: An internal review at Canadian construction company SNC-Lavalin of certain payments approved by the CEO has resulted in that executive’s departure from the company.

The payments in question were approved directly by the CEO after the CFO rejected them. Documentation was apparently sketchy, as the review revealed that the projects they were attributed to were incorrect.

[The review] reveals payments to contracts that didn’t exist, mysterious agents whose identity “is without substance,” and staffers using emails and password-protected devices that the company couldn’t access.

They can’t be sure that the payments in question weren’t related to their controversial involvement with the former Gaddafi regime in Libya, since the recipients appear to be fictitious. They believe they weren’t, but there’s really no basis for that belief since the report is inconclusive.

SNC-Lavalin has operations in over 100 countries and earned over $7-billion in revenue last year.

The company said improper payments are a result of “management override, flawed design or ineffective enforcement of controls” in relation to hiring agents for two of its projects.

Design is one aspect of internal control, and operating effectiveness is the other. Add to that management’s ability override them, and they’ve pretty much covered all their bases!

Some former employees have conducted company affairs using non-corporate email addresses or had password protected devices to which the company does not have access.

This is incredibly suspicious, as what good reason could there be for using non-corporate email to conduct company business? Always a red flag, but tough to uncover. The article doesn’t discuss how it was in this case, unfortunately.

The original investigation, which was reported at the end of February, was over $35-million in payments which were undocumented. The reporting of this information resulted in a 20% decline in the company’s stock, which has since recovered only about ⅓ of the drop. Clearly, controls at the company are not strong enough and the market believes the environment may be such that more of these types of situations exist.

Now, with these recent developments, it seems that the “tone at the top,” a critical component of a strong control environment (see COSO Internal Control Framework), was not one of uncompromising integrity.

Depending on the nature of the payments, if it is ever determined satisfactorily, this could have implications related to the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, Canada’s version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US.