Grey matters ethical dilemma: A sign of the times?

Important documents are missing a witness signature. Holly, not the appointed witness, decides to sign them herself rather than disturb the witness at a time of grief. How should her manager respond?

sign of the times
Holly works for a small firm of wealth managers, where she has been employed for several years. She supports Alex, an experienced manager in servicing clients’ needs. Alex thinks highly of Holly, whom she regards as possessing all the requirements for becoming a manager before too long.


Alex and the firm have helped their important clients, the Harris family, arrange their assets to reduce the impact of inheritance tax, including the setting up of various forms of trust arrangements. Regrettably, Mr Harris was diagnosed with cancer and although the initial prognosis was that he should live for several years, it soon became apparent that this was unlikely. Consequently, all his tax arrangements were reviewed, and Mr Harris was required to sign several documents. Alex asked Holly to ensure that this was achieved with as little disturbance of the Harris family as possible. The documents required not only the signature of all the trustees, but also that the signatures be witnessed, so it was a time-consuming process.

Meanwhile, Holly learnt that her grandmother was also seriously ill. Holly was granted time off to go on what subsequently turned out to be her final visit, which she understandably found very upsetting.

On returning to work after a brief period of grievance leave, Holly reviewed the Harris family documents and found that Mr Harris’s signature was missing in one place, so she returned the documents for this to be completed. They were not returned for several days, and were accompanied by a note suggesting that, although he had been able to sign the documents, Mr Harris was now very close to death. Holly, being uncomfortably reminded of the recent loss of her grandmother, put the documents to one side. A further day passed before Holly once again reviewed the documentation, when she realised to her dismay that although Mr Harris’s signatures were all complete, one of the other parties to the arrangement had not had their signature witnessed as required.
Holly realised, to her dismay, one of the other parties had not had their signature witnessed

Imagining the situation in the Harris family  household, Holly wondered what she should do. She could not send the documents back at this time but, on the other hand, Mr Harris might die before they were fully complete and effective. Alex was on leave and not due to return to the office for another week, so Holly was unable to discuss the situation with her. Holly could see that the witness completed the rest of the form correctly and inserted their signature at other necessary points throughout. She therefore believed that the trustee’s signature was witnessed  properly, and the omission of the witness’s signature on this  page was an ‘honest mistake’. She decided that as all the parties to the documents were known to her, at least to the extent that their signatures appear frequently on Harris family documents, she would sign her own name in the blank witness signature space and, in doing so, effectively act as a witness in this case. After all, she rationalised to herself, it was only  the confirmation of the trustee’s signature and what alternative did she have? She could not afford to delay matters, and had been given strict instructions to not upset Mr Harris or his family.

Over the next few days, Holly wrestled with her conscience and decided that when Alex returned to the office, she would tell her what she had done and accept the consequences. Alex returned and met with Holly for a review of what had happened in her absence. Holly told her about the situation with Mr Harris, the difficulties that she had encountered in obtaining all the necessary signatures and reassured Alex that she had resolved them all, just in time, as sadly Mr Harris had passed away the previous day. Alex thanked her for what she had done, but then Holly, unable to contain herself any longer, explained that there had been a missing witness signature, and that she had inserted her own signature to confirm the authenticity of the original.

How should Alex respond?

  1. Holly should be fired for gross misconduct. She was not a witness to the trustee’s signature, and has therefore fraudulently inserted her own name in the documents.
  2. Alex should acknowledge that Holly was left in a tough position and did what she thought was right in the circumstances. However, she did make some serious mistakes, so should be required to undertake further training, and must have all her work strictly supervised for a set time.
  3. Holly clearly knows that her actions are wrong, and Alex trusts that she would not behave in this manner under normal circumstances. Furthermore, Alex realises that her own actions, including telling Holly to ensure the paperwork was completed with minimal disruption to the Harris family, and leaving her without supervision during a critical time, contributed to the issue arising. Therefore, she should not take any further action at this time.
  4. Holly should face disciplinary action, but the sanction should be short of dismissal, considering Alex’s responsibility in the situation arising as well as the exceptional circumstances presented by this case.


This dilemma appears in the Q2 2018 print edition of The Review, out soon. The CISI's opinion will be published in the Q3 2018 print edition of The Review.
Published: 25 May 2018
  • Integrity & Ethics
  • Grey matter
  • ethical dilemma

No Comments

Sign in to leave a comment

Leave a comment