A survey of senior financial executives found that their companies are implementing ethics policies, but that the stewardship of those policies is often in doubt.

The survey by CFO Europe Research Services and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants found that more than 90 percent of companies have a written ethics policy, but few have processes in place to make sure it is being followed. Nevertheless, 80 percent say corporate ethics are more important than they were five years ago.

CFOs in the U.S. outpace their European and Southeast Asian colleagues when it comes to establishing ethics codes and whistle-blowing policies, providing protection for staff members who raise the alarm, and ethics training.

"The results took me a bit by surprise," said Paul Moxey, head of corporate governance and risk management at the ACCA. "I expected to see better progress in Europe. In the States, you have the federal sentencing guidelines. If something goes wrong at the company, there might be criminal penalties involved. That might be a big driver for American companies that seem to have in place more ethical practices."

Sarbanes-Oxley also seems to be a factor in the U.S., although in Europe, there is still resistance to such rules, Moxey pointed out. The survey also found that the top-performing companies were likely to report they had an excellent ethical climate. However, when the survey asked about whether companies and their boards had practices and procedures in place to monitor whether they were adhering to their code of ethics and processes to provide such assurances, the results were disappointing.

Strategic responsibility for ethics resides a step above the CFO, with the chairman or CEO, but CFOs are more likely to be the day-to-day guardians. Moxey believes that CFOs should help fulfill this role. "I think it's something that CFOs should be very actively involved in," he said. "CFOs are the natural keepers of the corporate conscience. They are the natural people to be spearheading a company's approach to whether it's living up to its values or complying with its rules."

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