Blog: Targets and fraud: Breaking down the nexus

Performance Management

Targets and fraud: Breaking down the nexus

Corporate fraud isn't a new phenomenon. All sectors have all been victims at one time or another. Is the pressure of 'unachievable' targets to blame?
Targets and fraud: Breaking down the nexus

It happens suddenly! The bad press, anxious auditors, stressed-out leaders, frayed tempers, everyone running around like headless chickens and that sinking feeling of a failure.

Out of the blue, the greatest asset of an otherwise meticulous and compliant organisation, commits a criminal act or an omission. That bright enthusiastic individual, who until recently was everyone’s blue-eyed kid, becomes public enemy No. 1.

Straight Question: Why did you do it?
Simple Answer: To meet my targets!
Audience reaction: Oh the poor oppressed soul!

So begins the debate – and dodgy sting operations to surreptitiously ‘unearth the truth’. Global examples are laid out in quick succession. Statistics fly about like F-16s on murderous sorties. Hysterical anchors and frantic publications scream out provocative, leading questions.

Oh, the noise! Are organisations setting unreasonable targets? Do incentive plans encourage mendacious behaviour? Are leaders creating pressure-cooker climates? Are corporations bullying the underdog employee?

Corporate India, why are you doing this? The people want answers! Hey, hold on! Wait a minute! Targets? Unreasonable?

Let’s be clear: Targets are at the tip of all performance metrics that emerge from an organisation’s strategy. They are the goals that an organisation sets for itself, if it has to survive, be competitive and grow. Every employee, from the CEO to the long-moustached chap who opens the office doors, is committed to these goals and targets.

Targets are simply the minimum acceptable performance levels appointed to business units and individuals – the minimum expectation that justifies an employee’s existence.

Incentives – a.k.a. commission, bonus, etc. – form the icing on the multi-layered target cake. The financial sweetener that motivates employees to go the extra mile, to out-perform peers, to gain visibility, to build a successful career. Better performance - better pay! Fair and square.

On the subject of performance, organisations tend to place their employees in one of three basic performance classes:

  1. The high performers
  2. The solid average performers
  3. The low performers

Each of these groups has a unique view of performance targets. High performers tend to view targets as simple benchmarks. They are attracted by the additional money and recognition that comes from over-achieving their targets. High performers form a small, elite club of employees that understands and genuinely leverages the Pay for Performance model of their organisation. Leaders do cartwheels to keep this lot constantly engaged, motivated, happy – and away from competition’s tentacles.

Solid average performers view targets as the basic deliverable to keep their jobs and their bosses off their backs. No more, no less. This group usually forms the largest population in any organisation. Leaders and HR teams would do well to focus employee satisfaction and organisation culture programmes at what is also a great hunting ground for future high performers.

Poor performers treat targets as life’s greatest pain! Disengaged and lazy to the core, this demanding, noisy constituency is ever ready to provide critical, and usually unconstructive, ‘feedback’ on everything from strategy, to everyone else’s delivery, but their own. Often reminding one of the proverb about empty vessels.

However, it must be mentioned that it is indeed possible to ’re-motivate’ some of these individuals to move up the performance ladder and contribute. Leaders need to make the effort, but turnarounds are not unheard of, once the true cause of the poor performance is determined and appropriate corrective actions taken.

Bottom-line, the deal is very simple: Employees must deliver at specified levels – targets – to stay employed. Given a choice between retaining non-performers and staying in business, organisations will make the obvious choice! Whether they call it a ‘dead-wood’ strategy or ‘cutting off the tail’, companies offer poor/non-performers two clear choices: An opportunity to perform or the ignominy of departure!

Should such a cold offering evoke fear? Stress?

Absolutely! But only for those who haven’t performed. Actually, the fear isn’t about difficult or un-achieved targets. It’s about that thorny appraisal conversation with the boss! It’s about what the spouse, neighbours, parent’s-in-law, significant others, would say and think about them. Loser!

For true high performers, however, targets are a booster shot of adrenalin. Heralding the thrill of the chase and the heady nirvana of winning!

Average performers too, since time immemorial, have delivered diligently, honestly and on target. Despite cribbing about the stress, the pressure, the fear – yet, doing what is expected of them and being thankful that they hold a job in these difficult times!

Should that same cold offering evoke fraudulent behaviour? Absolutely not! If indeed targets were universally considered unachievable, unreasonable or monstrous, then every employee would be blithely indulging in unfair means to achieve them. Fraud would become a norm!

In reality, employee fraud has little to do with targets. It has everything to do with personal integrity!

Somewhere, in the brightly lit halls of even the most respected organisations, there hangs out a group of seemingly normal individuals who were intelligent enough to have tricked the hiring process and survived the performance standards thus far; intelligent enough to legally crack any target thrown at them. Yet, they choose the devious route with the arrogance to believe that they can bend policy, indeed the law itself, to make some mean money.

Preferring to forget the values their parents’ ingrained in them during their upbringing. Opting to forget the organisation’s own values. Guided, or misguided, by unscrupulous mentors – or indeed their own imprudent belief that they can achieve success by taking illegal shortcuts – and getting away with it.

So how do they get away with it? Can organisations protect themselves?

Holes in the hiring process
It all starts with the hiring process. Talent attraction folks concede that they sometimes have to cut corners if they have to hire/replace a large number of people quickly and when business leaders are unwilling to put out adequate hiring budgets. They chip away at the background verification process, get overawed by the individual’s past performance and do not fully verifying previous employment records. After all, a high performer in a past organisation should be a high performer in the present scenario! Unfortunately, the same logic holds good for fraudulent behaviour!

False promises and good faith:
Then, the perpetual false promises. ‘Log in the sale today and I will get the supporting documents by tomorrow.’ ‘It’s $10 million a month in throughput! Should I let it go?’ The lure of success, or threat of failure, often sways supervisors who set aside their training and make decisions on ‘good faith’.

Supervisors – also under pressure to show results (so what’s new?) – often relax fundamental rules that have been designed to curb malpractices in the workplace. While not to be condoned, if these are restricted to elements like office timings, absence guidelines, daily sales reports and the like – essentially internal policies – there may be some hope.

It is when these laxities extend to legal and regulatory disciplines that things could get really ugly! In the former, individuals could get away with a memo or, at worst, dismissal. The latter could result in imprisonment, fines and public loss of face – for the individual as well as the organisation.

Supervisor Training – Compliance a key subject
Supervisor training, wherever it exists, usually focuses on some elements of leadership, products, and how to make people work harder and deliver results. Compliance awareness education is baked into processes. Eg KYC documents mandated by law are baked into the sales process under the head: Supporting documents. Expecting a robot-like compliance only to open up avenues for fudging. Banks and credit card issuers, among others, have been burned on this specific aspect!

Communication vs Education
An internal communication is deemed to be complete when that memo, that email, goes out ‘To All Employees’ and is posted on the website, and is pasted on the notice board! What more can be done? The answer is Compliance Awareness Education. It is not only necessary to inform employees what they have to do, but also constantly reiterate it giving the reasons behind the policy/regulation – and the consequences of non-compliance.

Companies would do well to invest in a regular employee compliance curriculum. US regulators, for example, tend to be less harsh with organisations facing litigation for non-compliance of regulations, if they can demonstrate well-implemented employee compliance education programmes as part of their DNA.

True, this shifts the blame squarely on the employee making the act premeditated versus an oversight. But then, that’s reality, isn’t it?

Review of uber-high Performance: High performance needs to be applauded, and rightly so. But in uber-high performance, an individual’s results may seem out of sync with everyone else’s. Setting a reasonable benchmark, say 150 per cent of targets and doing a deep-dive review of individuals delivering such results could throw up irregularities, if any. Have the targets been too soft, or is the employee truly a prodigy. First prize – would be the latter! Worst case, something’s not right – the spoor of potential fraud! Catch it here, before it blows up in everyone’s face.

Sweeping non-compliance under the carpet: Particularly when the numbers are looking good, organisations tend to sweep non-compliance under the carpet with just a warning. Business leaders prefer to criticise in private rather than make examples of defaulters. They feel it would spoil the grand run. Sadly, this only gives the trojans more confidence! They only have to step into the confessional, say their mea culpas and move on – to the next fraud!

There are several other good practices, already in existence, that don’t cost much to implement:

Company Values – Top of mind positioning
A strong, visible and constantly reiterated set of company values – hammered into everyone starting from the day they join, by the CEO directly. Every employee should have these values tacked to their soft-boards as well as in their hearts and minds

Blue rule-Red rule model
A good model is the Blue rule-Red rule model. Blue rules are internal policies. These can be discussed and changed by senior management in tandem with the operating environment and employee needs. Red rules are those laid down by the law of the land. They are non-negotiable, not open to debate and are to be followed to the letter attracting severe retribution. There is a need to educate employees about the difference between the two.

Organisations and people leaders must understand that if they do not make examples of fraudsters, non-compliant discipline breakers, immediately and at the first instance, they risk becoming examples themselves.

So why blame targets? Why even listen to fraudsters who happily hide behind misguided public sympathy? Targets are a part of the deal – live with it!

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Topics: Performance Management

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