Audit case studies: lessons from real-world audit failures and success stories

5 mins

If you’re an auditor, you’ve probably achieved your fair share of success stories – perhaps ...

If you’re an auditor, you’ve probably achieved your fair share of success stories – perhaps you’ve witnessed a few failures too.

As the saying goes, we learn from our mistakes, and audit case studies, both failures and successes serve as valuable insight. Real-life audit examples provide us with lessons on what to do and what to avoid, enabling organisations to improve their audit processes. 

Ready to discover some real-world examples? Here’s our pick of a few high-profile cases…

When things go wrong

(1) Enron Corporation

The Enron scandal and the subsequent collapse of the Enron Corporation serves as a stark reminder of audit failure and corporate misconduct. Possibly the most high-profile scandal ever unearthed, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002 was passed as a result of scandals such as this, WorldCom, Tyco, and Global Crossing.

Enron's auditor Arthur Andersen was heavily criticised for failing to detect fraudulent financial reporting. And lots of lessons can be learned from this example.

Firstly, Enron’s case highlights the importance of auditors maintaining independence from the companies they audit to ensure unbiased assessments. But it also reminds us of the importance of whistle-blower protection – where there are safeguards in place, organisations will encourage openness and provide the confidence for individuals discovering financial irregularities to expose them. And Enron finally emphasises how crucial regulatory oversight is in holding auditors accountable and preventing corporate fraud.


(2) Toshiba

We’ve all heard of Toshiba, a renowned multinational conglomerate, manufacturing a wide variety of consumer and business products. Despite the company’s famous success, this chapter of their story is not one of their finest.

In July 2015, Toshiba experienced an internal audit failure that spotlighted the gap between good corporate governance structure and its practical implementation. It led to Toshiba Corp’s president, Hisao Tanaka, and his two predecessors quitting after investigators found that the company had inflated earnings by $1.2 billion between 2009 and 2014.

Regardless of a sound governance structure, the organisation suffered from a massive financial scandal, highlighting the importance of proactive internal auditing to identify and prevent financial irregularities.


(3) Ernst & Young

Even the largest professional services companies are sometimes at the centre of an audit scandal. And in the case of Ernst & Young, these kinds of scenarios serve as a reminder of the importance of a robust auditing process for even the biggest of players.

EY was fined $11.8 million for audit failures in 2016. USA regulator SEC found that EY’s audit team repeatedly failed to detect fraudulent activity for more than four consecutive years. Additionally, it was reported that EY’s team failed to take effective measures in minimising known recurring tax-related problems.

This case emphasises the critical role auditors play in scrutinising high-risk areas and addressing known deficiencies. And underscores the importance of due diligence and thoroughness in audits.


(4) WorldCom

The WorldCom scandal is another example of a colossal audit failure. Arthur Andersen, the same auditor implicated in the Enron scandal, failed to detect a massive accounting fraud at WorldCom.

What can we learn from this tale? Well, attentive auditing is essential, and auditors need to exercise a blend of vigilance and scepticism when assessing financial statements. This example also points to ethical responsibility, underscoring auditors’ moral and ethical duty to report financial irregularities.

Like Enron, WorldCom’s case was instrumental in regulatory reforms, like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which increased corporate accountability.


Getting it right

(1) Apple Inc

Tech giant Apple is widely recognised for its financial transparency and internal controls. Their financial audits consistently reflect strong performance and accountability. Key takeaways from Apple's success include their transparency – Apple publishes detailed financial statements and reports that are easily accessible to the public, building trust with investors and stakeholders. They also have a set of robust internal controls and processes in place, minimising the risk of financial mismanagement or fraud.

The organisation’s MD Tim Cook says, “We do the right thing, even when it’s not easy.”


(2) Microsoft

Microsoft's another great example of a business with transparency and accountability at its core. The tech leader has consistently demonstrated exemplary corporate governance and financial reporting.

Their success highlights several valuable lessons, including the significance of disclosure. Microsoft provides comprehensive financial disclosures, offering investors a clear picture of their financial health. And they’ve also got their finger on the pulse when it comes to risk management, with practices in place that have been instrumental in ensuring long-term financial stability.

Microsoft carries out consistent and regular financial audits, to maintain trust and transparency with all of their stakeholders.


(3) Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson's another example of a profound commitment to transparency. The healthcare multinational is renowned for its sense of responsibility when it comes to ethical conduct.

Key takeaways include their strong ethical leadership – an essential asset for fostering a culture of compliance and accountability.

They also boast hardy compliance programs, proving that investing in this area can help detect and prevent financial misconduct. Stakeholder communication is another factor in Johnson & Johnson’s audit success, and open comms are encouraged to build trust and confidence.


What can we learn from all these case studies? The need for thoroughness, vigilance, transparency, ethical leadership, and continual improvement in auditing are essential. They emphasise the importance of not just having a good corporate governance structure, but also ensuring its effective implementation. And by learning from both successes and failures, we can strive to build a corporate environment that prioritises (financial) integrity and compliance with relevant regulatory, legal, and industry standards – and, of course foster trust and prevent costly failures.

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