Last week’s column was all about the explorative process of verifying the truth. Inspired by our auditors, I used a movie theme to illustrate the illusions that, as CPAs, we sometimes have to pierce. This week, Let's take the theme of “truth” a little further.
The quote above is from Ninth century Zen Master Lin-Chi. I have the quote in my desk so I can read it every day. Lin-Chi goes beyond the simple discovery of the truth, or the investigation of the truth and asserts that we have a duty to reveal the truth. And to do so in each moment. A subtle difference between uncovering and revealing, but an important one.
As we saw in last week's column, divining the truth and piercing illusion is an auditor's favorite pastime. But this only involves making a judgement about the truth. Lin-Chi's suggestion places a further, more personal, burden on us. Revealing the truth is to take that extra step to uncover and then to tell the entire story. Certainly as accountants, we are bound in many cases by the standard of confidentiality, but that only applies to releasing information to the public. To our clients, we owe the truth.
Revealing the truth takes strength. Maybe not so much when the truth is good, but when the truth is unexpected and bad, it requires a much stronger constitution. As an example, there are a few (thankfully very few) times in which I have discovered that our office has made a mistake. My policy in that instance is to tell the client immediately and make it right. No questions asked. It is doubly difficult to do so in that 1) it involves revealing to a client (most of whom I consider friends) that we are not perfect and 2) it usually involves some kind of financial loss to myself. For me, though, the alternatives are worse and therefore I choose to be proactive and reveal the truth to my clients.
Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar preached that you cannot be truly successful if you are simultaneously acting in a manner that is incongruent with your own values and beliefs. Sooner or later you self destruct. Enron was a prime example of a company that devised thousands of ways to mislead the public and then wondered why it could not sustain itself. The sad thing is that there were several turning points in the five years before Enron's bankruptcy that, if they had done the right thing, could have saved the company. Instead, the company that was built on lies and deceit, died as a result. Reveal the truth.
One of my areas of practice includes litigation consulting. These engagements are usually built around an ongoing or potential legal action in which I am asked to advise one of the parties and sometimes even testify to a particular financial aspect of a case. In those engagements there are several possible outcomes from my involvement. After my own investigation, I could agree with the client, I could disagree with all or part of my client's position, or I could find that there is more to the story that is not being told. But in all cases, the revelation of truth is paramount (even if it hurts the client). Our system of law is predicated on the concept of truth and my primary responsibility is always to the truth.
Finally, Mark Twain said that if you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. I say, if you reveal the truth, you also have nothing to forget.