Today, I want to consider some of the issues around internal controls outside the U.S. 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 CCO should consider 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 U.S. The scope of liability is based on the issuer’s incorporation of the subsidiary’s financial statements in its own records and 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 U.S. are of the same effectiveness as internal controls within U.S. business units and at the U.S. 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 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 U.S.) having completely different accounting, ERP 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 U.S. with what began simply as a sales office and then expanded its scope of operations to become a business unit with its own accounting and data processing functions. Unfortunately, it is not often the situation where there was a master plan for internal controls as the location’s scope grew. Processes are usually added and designed by the local personnel which, in practice, means the country manager has total control over financial affairs and is not truly 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.

Where should a CCO begin in any of the above scenarios? The 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, whereas in others 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 U.S., depending on the degree of accounting decentralization. A good starting point is to determine the extent to which the financial statements of non-U.S. business units 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 second 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 U.S. 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.