Unethical Tech Workers Pose Danger to Your Business

Fraud and embezzlement are two dangers to every company. I’ve written a lot about instituting policies and steps to take to help make your company safe from employee theft. These tips primarily focus on those employees who have access to your financial accounts.

But they aren’t the only employees you need to worry about. Your IT employees may also be capable of potentially causing massive damage to your company, as pointed out in a recent article in Fortune magazine, “How much do you really know about the tech worker you just hired?”

We have all read the headlines about companies like Sony, Target and Anthem/Blue Cross being hacked by outsiders. What is less common knowledge are the problems that can come from within the company. Yes, your own IT employees could be a threat. They have access to valuable information, and if they desire, can threaten to make it public if you don’t pay up. It’s the new age of blackmail.

There is really no way to know how often this happens, because like with many cases of fraud or embezzlement, the corporation often keeps it quiet so it won’t draw unwanted publicity.

And even if an employee leaves, he or she can still potentially blackmail you. It’s been reported that Nokia regularly deals with security issues, including being blackmailed by a former employee who obtained classified information. According to an article in the Helsinki Times, in 2007 a blackmailer asked for millions of euros to protect an encryption key of Symbian phones. The release of that information could have caused millions of dollars in damage.

At least he’s a charitable blackmailer — he asked for half of the money in cash and for the other half to go to charity. Nokia made the donation and paid the ransom, delivering half of it in an ice hockey equipment bag. The blackmailer took the money and ran. The crime is still under investigation.

So how do you protect your company? Your tech employees most likely have access to potentially damaging information about your business. And it can be a whole lot more difficult and complicated to prevent tech blackmailers than it is to set up checks and balances on your financial accounts.

How to prevent problems with tech employees

The key is to start with your hiring practices. Companies desperate to hire qualified tech workers have been guilty of skipping over crucial steps when selecting new employees. Ken Springer, a former FBI agent and founder of Corporate Resolutions, suggested these steps in the Fortune article: Verify everything on the resume, ask your current IT people to check their references, let prospective employees know you will do a thorough background check and reward employees for referring good tech people to hire.

In addition to these tips, I would add some of my previously recommended tips on fraud prevention that can apply here as well, including:

  • Conduct credit checks. Exercise caution in considering any employee in a dire financial situation.
  • Always prosecute fraud. Make it clear you have a no-tolerance policy.
  • Train your managers to pay close attention to their employees’ behavior and for any changes in that behavior. See More Red Flags of Fraud and The Red Flags of Fraud.

Sadly, threats to the wellbeing of your company can come from both internal and external sources. It’s worth the time and expense to make sure you are hiring ethical and honest tech employees.

 

 

7 Fraud Prevention Tips for Small Businesses

Last week’s post, More Red Flags of Fraud, discussed how management should be trained to always be on the lookout for behavioral changes in employees that may be red flags for fraud. As the column pointed out, 92 percent of the people who committed fraud exhibited certain behavioral traits. Recognizing those can be the key to detecting and preventing fraud.

Being aware of and dealing with fraud is crucial for any size business, but particularly for small businesses for three reasons:

  • They are disproportionately victimized by fraud
  • They are less likely to have fraud protection measures in place
  • There tends to be a greater level of trust in small offices

That’s according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (AFCE). Small businesses, defined as those with fewer than 100 employees, suffered 28.8 percent of all fraud cases, with an average median loss of $154,000.

The average median loss was higher for the largest entities, defined as more than 10,000 employees, at $160,000. But obviously that is a much smaller fraction of overall revenue than for smaller companies.

So you’re a small business and can’t afford the most expensive fraud detection systems. But there are plenty of measures you can enact to cut down potential for fraud in your company. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Select the right employees. Always check references and criminal records. You may want to conduct credit checks to make sure your potential employee is not in dire financial straits, which can set the stage for him to consider committing fraud.
  • Separate accounting duties. Many small businesses delegate all the financial dealings to one person, who opens the mail, writes checks, reconciles the accounts and generates invoices. This makes a business vulnerable. If you don’t have the staff to completely separate duties, then have some of the responsibility rotate around the office if possible.
  • Always prosecute theft and fraud. Make it clear that you have a no-tolerance policy towards any type of theft or fraud and you will prosecute any and all people involved. This is easy to include in an employee manual. “If you steal, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” If the policy is equally applied to all employees, no one, even in a small office, should feel mistrusted.
  • Conduct surprise audits. Ask to see the books and review invoices and accounts payable. Call a few of the businesses to make sure they are legit and that your company is doing business with them. Or call your CPA in for an unannounced mini audit to uncover any problems.
  • Have your controller, bookkeeper or CFO take off two consecutive weeks each year. I recommend this measure to all my clients as a way to prevent and detect fraud. In their absence, do their jobs. Open the mail, review deposits, correspond with vendors.
  • Purchase the ACFE’s Small Business Fraud Prevention Manual. At $59, it’s money well spent. The manual goes into detail on how employees steal. It also gives prevention tips and how to deal with dishonest employees.

And as long as you are buying books, add my book to the list. How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes contains a chapter called “Stop Fraud Before It Starts” and includes ways to create an office fraud as well as tips on preventing fraud in all size companies.

You’ve worked hard to create revenue for your business. Don’t let anyone steal any of it from you.

Why You Want Your Employees to Take Vacation

Many people refer to the third Monday of January as Blue Monday – the most depressing day of the year. The holidays are over, the weather is cold and drab and there is less sunlight.

If you’ve made some typical resolutions for the new year, you may have given up foods you love, or alcohol for the month. Rather than cheery holiday cards that arrived in your mailbox in December, now the mail just brings bills from purchases you made this past month.

Here’s my prescription for battling Blue Monday. Plan a vacation. Not only will it give you something to look forward to, taking time off is good for your health and your productivity. And encourage your employee to take time off as well.

While many Americans leave vacation days unused every year, according to a survey done by Glassdoor, a career website, 15 percent of U.S. employees did not use any in 2013.

And they even brag about it, believing they are more productive and proving themselves more dedicated and valuable than their co-workers. They may believe it helps ensure job security.

But studies have shown that not using all of your vacation is actually hazardous to your health. The Framington Heart Study found that taking vacation increases your longevity and decreases your changes of dying from a heart-related cause.

And taking a vacation can actually make your more productive. In an interview with ABC News, Francine Lederer, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles said, “The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound. Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation, even if it is a 24-hour time-out.”

Recognizing the importance of time off, many companies have taken unique approaches to make sure their employees refresh themselves.

Rather than mandate a maximum number of vacation days, HubSpot instituted a minimum number. Every employee has to take two weeks off every year. The Motley Fool awards the Fool’s Errand prize to one lucky employee. The company draws a name of an employee who has been with the company at least a year. The lucky winner gets $1,000 and two weeks off, must leave immediately and have no contact with the office. And if you work for FullContact, you receive $7,500 to finance a vacation.

Evernote began offering unlimited paid vacation. But some employees were confused and thought that meant they shouldn’t take any vacation. So the company offered each employee $1,000 to get away, and “come back with a stretched-out mind,” said Phil Libin, chief executive, as quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

There is another excellent reason to encourage a two-week vacation. As the Turnaround Authority, I always recommend that banks and financial institutions require the CFO to take two consecutive weeks off to detect and prevent fraud.

As I write in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes,” during his absence, do his job. Sit at his desk. Open his mail. Review all of the deposits. Talk to his secretary or assistant. Just see what happens. This method has long been highly successful for CFOs, and banks have used this same technique for ages. If you don’t find anything unusual, that’s wonderful. Unfortunately, though, you might uncover a detail worth noticing.”Having another set of eyes review transactions can uncover fraud and some misdemeanors.

Taking time off is good for your health, your productivity and your outlook, and that of your employees. It’s also an opportunity for you to spot potential fraud.

So rather than dwell on the dreary days of January, plan a getaway. Even if it’s just a weekend away, you’ll feel refreshed. And Blue Monday will be just another day.

Communicate, Negotiate and Delegate in a Turnaround

This week I’ll be in Jekyll Island at the Turnaround Management Southeastern Conference, where I’ll be on a panel called Titans of the Turnaround. I chuckle about being called a Titan, as I was for an article written about my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.” I never played football for Tennessee.

But it has me thinking about the skills that I have found to be the most useful in my career in the turnaround business. These include the ability to communicate, negotiate and delegate.

Communicate

I’ve written several times about the need for communication, because it doesn’t matter how smart or visionary you are, if you can’t communicate to your employees you will not be a successful leader. As Lee Iacocca said, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.”

When I am hired as interim CEO or consultant at a company in trouble, I stress the need to senior management to communicate openly and honestly about the situation. I often have to work hard to open up lines of communications with employees at all levels, as they may have become accustomed to being kept in the dark.

Some employees work night shifts and may feel particularly left out of what’s going on. At one company, I hosted a midnight barbecue and chatted with the employees as I grilled hamburgers. In addition to enjoying my superb cooking skills, they left feeling listened to and informed.

As a “Titan” I also have to communicate effectively with everyone involved with the company, including lenders, vendors and customers.

Negotiate

I’ve written about my need to negotiate as the Turnaround Authority, which has earned me the nickname the Monty Hall of business. Every day is a game of  “Let’s Make a Deal” for me. You cannot be successful in the turnaround field without the ability to negotiate effectively with all interested parties.

In the negotiation process, I employ communication skills while always searching for creative solutions. Because I have not been involved in the company as it began to suffer financial difficulties, I can clearly see the situation, while the CEO has often become too emotional to determine and handle what needs to be done.

I worked with one company that had lost control of its brand and entered into licensing agreements with substandard manufacturers. It was embroiled in trademark issues and meanwhile had accumulated large debts.

I was able to renegotiate licensing agreements and default substantial licenses, getting the company back on track and focusing on its fantastic design department.

To read more about negotiation, please see my previous post, “A Key Ingredient to a Successful Negotiation.”

Delegate

I’ve seen it more times than I can remember in companies in crisis. A CEO who should be focusing his time and talent on getting his company back to financial health is instead working on tasks that could easily be handled by someone else. Usually it’s because he has not learned to properly delegate and let go of tasks that are not the best use of his time.

This inability to delegate is often one of the reasons the company has ended up in trouble in the first place. The CEO did not know how to let go of tasks or was micromanaging those that he had delegated.

All CEOs and business owners have to learn the art of delegation. That involves giving clear instruction on what needs to be done and when the deadline is. Another key is making sure you delegate the task to the right person.

The CEO needs to see himself as the catalyst to get the job done. He also needs to have the skills to communicate, negotiate and delegate.

Never Skew the Facts to Sell the Deal

My work as the turnaround authority has given me a front-row seat to the behavior of CEOs that led them to crises. This experience provided plenty of fodder for my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

One of the mistakes CEOs make, which I covered in a white paper I wrote, is that they skew the facts to boards, creditors and constituents to “sell the deal.” Now, I often have to deal with unpleasant situations and work with companies in dire straits. But no matter how bad the situation, honesty really is the best policy. Changing the facts, or omitting crucial information to get your way is never the way to go.

Here are two stories to illustrate my point. Both these situations involved CEOs bending the facts so they could qualify for financing their companies couldn’t support.

The CEO of a hard drive manufacturer in California desperately wanted a line of credit from his bank for $60 million, so he stuffed the channel in order to make his company appear more credit worthy.

Stuffing the channel is when a manufacturer oversells product to put sales on the books, despite knowing that much of the merchandise will come back unsold. This inflates the books by overstating the top line, thereby improving the bottom line.

This strategy worked. He got the loan, but when the company repurchased the inventory on the channel within 60 days, it became out of compliance on the line of credit and the bank put the company in default.

That’s when I was brought in to salvage what I could and to hopefully restructure the company. The company survived, thanks to some hedge fund loans, but the CEO lost his job because he skewed the facts and misrepresented the true financial situation of the company.

Not bending the facts is so important that it deserves this second story. Before the technology was so ubiquitous, laser tag equipment had a very high value. A Texas-based company was seeking a large loan and claimed it had more inventory on its books than it did by adding the inventory in its Ireland-based location to the U.S. books. The auditors never verified the inventory and granted the company a far larger loan than it could handle.

When the company filed for Chapter 11, I went to the “plant” in Ireland and was not happy to discover it was just an empty lot. That inventory was just a figment of the president and CFO’s imagination and the company was now $75 million short in inventory.

I immediately went to the judge to convert the case to a Chapter 7 rather than try to bring the company through bankruptcy and be embarrassed by the fraud. The creditors ultimately sued the accounting firm and recovered millions of dollars from faulty accounting, once again highlighting the blunder of skewing facts.

Don’t manipulate data to give an unrealistic picture of your company, especially when it comes to qualifying for financing. There are reasons for the rules that prevent companies from getting loans they can’t handle, and yes, those rules do apply to you.

What to Tell Your Lender, and When

Nobody really likes to share bad news. And when that news pertains to problems with your business, you may think the last person you should share that with is your lender. Maybe you are thinking you can turn things around before your lender has to find out. You wouldn’t want them to worry, would you?

Wrong. When your business encounters difficulties, you need to be in touch with your lender even more often. Lenders hate surprises. The key to maintaining a good relationship with your lender is to keep him informed every step of the way when you are handling a financial crisis. You can never give your lender too much information.

Open communication is the best way for your lender to be an advocate for your business and help you through the situation. Remember, your banker wants you to succeed and will do what he can to help you. But he can only do that if you keep him informed.

In my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned From CEOs’ Mistakes,” I talk about the 10 C’s of Bank Relationships for CEOs. Communication is one of those C’s, and in fact, almost every one of the other C’s hinges on it. (To learn the other nine, you can buy my book!)

I worked with a company I’ll call Giant Manufacturing, which had been a booming business for decades prior to 2007. But some unprofitable long-term contracts, coupled with the broader economic decline in the United States, resulted in severe declines in cash flow.

The company did not inform the bank until it was in dire straits. As you can imagine, the bank was not happy. Because it was so surprised and caught off guard by the situation, it cut back on availability of funds for Giant Manufacturing, which gave the company even less money to operate.

Had the CEO been proactive and called the bank immediately and continued to keep them informed, he could have potentially kept the bank on his team as he worked to get the company back to profitability. But because he kept them in the dark, they no longer trusted his ability and shut down access to much-needed operating capital.

After I took over, one of my main challenges was to obtain funding. Most sources had already declined to fund the company. But after 16 months, we were able to turn around Giant Manufacturing to having a positive cash flow position and a new lender was more receptive because of the speed of the turnaround. He could trust that the company was operating in a fiscally responsible way.

But an important part of obtaining that credit was educating the new bank. Yes, we shared our successes with the turnaround, but also the challenges we faced and the ones that had led to severe decline in revenues.

Giant Manufacturing learned its lesson and maintains a healthy relationship with its bank. And like any healthy relationship, it depends on ongoing and honest communication.

Mark Twain said, “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”  With respect to Mr. Twain, I’d alter that quote just a bit. The banker is quite happy for you to hang onto that umbrella, just as long as you keep him informed of any storms you are encountering and allow him to work as a team member to help your business weather them.

 

Ten Steps to Keep from Hiring a Guy Like Me

Yesterday I was on the radio with Bernie Marcus, retired founder of The Home Depot. We were on the conservative radio show of Michael Hart, and we talked primarily about job creation and the need for government to interfere less with businesses – particularly the regulations that stifle the growth of small and medium businesses.

Though I don’t have a copy of that show yet to post for you, it made me remember that I do have the audio recording of my recent presentation to the CEO Group of Baltimore. It’s one version of my talk, Ten Steps to Keep from Hiring a Guy Like Me.

I’ve posted it here for your enjoyment and referral. I hope it helps you avoid hiring me or anyone like me in the future.

Baltimore presentation

I’m interested to see what the particular steps are that you extract from my talk. Let me know in the comments below. Please share any questions you have there, too!