CGMA interview: Managing tax advisors

We’re interviewing leading members of the CGMA community around the world to obtain their insights into future ways of working within organisations. 

Elizabeth Anderson talks about the challenges of managing an open workforce in the context of Unilever’s tax department, which has its own specific talent needs to address.

How do you maintain effective control of your temporary workforce?
Unilever has a very clear structure around whether you’ve brought somebody in as an employee, whether they’re full time or part time, whether they’re contractors, and what they can and can’t do. 

And what frameworks are in place to support that?
We have ongoing training on our code of business principles that help people understand what we will and won’t tolerate in terms of communication with suppliers or communication with customers. 

What are the biggest risks from a tax perspective?
In the tax area of course you have to be very careful if you’re involved in dealing with tax authorities. Reputation is paramount and all of the people that work for us need to be very clear on that. We don’t use contractors and indeed we try not to solely rely on professional advisers to represent us to the tax authorities. We take them along and we use them to argue the technical points, but I ask my managers always to be present, I don’t think you can abdicate the accountability for relationships with tax authorities to the advisers.  

How do you manage the other risks that an open workforce poses?
We expect confidentiality agreements, which require that they cannot share our documents around. We’re very conscious of confidentiality and needing to respect each other’s ownership. In the tax world, one of the things that can creep in over time, particularly if you work consistently with one adviser, is that they can forget where the boundary is. 

Where should the boundary be?
In my view, external advisers have an interest in getting good outcomes and good tax results for all their clients in a country, whereas I’m interested in Unilever and not their other clients. I think it’s important to get the message to the tax office that we want to talk only about what affects Unilever, not other issues the adviser may be dealing with.

What could you be doing better? 
I think there’s more to be done in making sure we get a global solution where a global solution is the right answer, or a regional solution if that’s the right answer.  We need to break down the barriers of getting things done three times over in three different countries with a slight country quirk on it. So in that sense the risk for me is that I actually end up paying more because I’ve got three country teams of advisers doing work when actually I’m better off to have one central approach to it, and that’s something that I think will evolve more and more going forward. 

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