Hard-pressed company bosses across much of the world are under so much pressure to deliver on growth that many have resorted to cooking the books, Ernst & Young says in its latest Fraud Survey published on Tuesday.
One in five of almost 3,500 staff quizzed in 36 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India said they had seen financial manipulation in their companies in the last 12 months, the accounting and consultancy firm said.
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In addition 42 percent of board directors and top managers surveyed said they were aware of "some type of irregular financial reporting".
And despite scandals and regulatory failures in the wake of the credit crunch, almost a quarter of top financial services staff surveyed said they were aware of manipulation and almost 10 percent of all staff said their companies had understated costs, overstated revenues or used unprincipled sales tactics.
Meanwhile, almost half of the sales staff surveyed across all sectors did not consider anti-corruption policies to be relevant and more than a quarter thought it acceptable to offer personal gifts or services to win or retain business.
In India, over a third felt justified in offering cash - triple the number in western Europe.
"Our survey shows that to find growth and improved performance in this environment, an alarming number appear to be comfortable with or aware of unethical conduct," said David Stulb, head of E&Y's fraud investigation and dispute services practice.
In Spain, ranked alongside Russia and just below Nigeria and Slovenia, 61 percent of staff believed companies often exaggerated results, compared with only 7 percent in Finland.
And E&Y said the vast majority of managers from Norway to Nigeria and Russia to Greece were feeling the pressure to deliver a good financial performance over the next 12 months, despite little optimism that business conditions would improve.
They were now forced to balance the risks of expanding into rapid-growth markets, where winning contracts can go hand-in-hand with corruption, cutting costs further and piling pressure on staff or suppliers - or distorting results, the firm said.
E&Y warned multinationals based in mature markets they could be more vulnerable to the risks of unethical behavior. One quarter of those asked thought watchdogs in rapid-growth markets focused more on the behavior of foreign businesses.
The consultancy called on managers to ask more robust questions, focus on key risks, such as poor due diligence accounting checks of intermediaries and associates, and punish unethical behavior.
(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Greg Mahlich)