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Are accountants ethically aware?

A new research project has uncovered the extent to which professional accountants are exposed to unethical activity.

The question of ethical or moral awareness of professionals is an important one, given that such awareness opens the door to ethical decision-making. Decisions made by accountants and other professionals are frequently made on a morally blind basis as the decision-maker is not aware that the choice harbours an inherent moral judgement. High standards of integrity are expected of professionals, who are also presumed to apply their specialised knowledge for the public good and to follow a code of ethics.
The significance of moral awareness is among the matters that prompted our research into the ethical world of professional accountants in Ireland. In this article, we will discuss the significance and challenges around ethical awareness. We will then describe our research and findings on the subject and conclude with some proposals for optimising ethical awareness, which can subsequently lead to more ethical decisions and actions.

What is moral awareness?

A morally or ethically aware individual recognises the moral nature of an ethically ambiguous situation, that his/her potential decision or action may conflict with one or more ethical standards or values. An interpretative process by the person to incoming information determines whether they have factored in and recognised the moral values dimension to the dilemma they must address. This is important because moral awareness represents a first step, which ultimately leads to moral action.

What leads to ethical awareness?

There are various causes of awareness. One is context, the organisational culture in which the individual finds him or herself, with its moral values and reward systems. Another is individual differences. For example, research has found that accountants’ ethical orientation – idealism with a focus on principles, duties, obligations and personal integrity versus relativism, which eschews any absolute moral principles – influences ethical sensitivity in favour of the former.

The other factor that promotes ethical awareness is the moral intensity of a given situation. This encompasses the magnitude of consequences from an ethical violation, social consensus on right and wrong, the temporal immediacy of consequences, the probability and proximity of beneficial or especially damaging effects on the public or the victim, and the concentration of effect.

Why is moral awareness so difficult to establish?

The nature of everyday routine in contemporary business organisations can foster insensitivity to the ethical aspect of decisions. The bureaucratic principle by which modern corporations are organised espouses impersonality in decision-making. It can lead to automaton-like behaviour, devoid of ethical considerations. We have routines of behaviour or scripts to follow in given situations, founded on unquestioned assumptions (for example, a script of how to prepare financial statements so we hardly think about it while doing it). Information inconsistent with the plot of the script may be filtered out (i.e. ethical considerations in the interests of efficiency).

Overview of the ethics research

Our research was part of a broad project examining ethical awareness, challenges and concerns of professional accountants with a view to creating guiding recommendations in support of ethical practice. Having conducted secondary research as background to steer the primary research, an online survey was completed by 2,137 members of Chartered Accountants Ireland and CPA Ireland in proportion to their membership numbers. This was followed by one-to-one interviews and focus groups to try to understand the thinking behind the survey responses.

Online survey

In the survey, respondents were asked to evaluate the extent to which they consider the need for ethical conduct in business decisions. Their responses were:

  • 54% stated a “very large extent”;
  • 34% stated a “large extent”; and
  • 12% stated “some or small extent or not at all”.

Respondents were asked how frequently, if at all, they observed or encountered particular categories of unethical behaviour (unethical HR practice, undue pressure or influence, dishonesty, bullying and harassment, misrepresentation and/or manipulation of information) in their career.

90% of respondents have “observed or encountered” a range of unethical conduct during their professional career, although this does not mean that they have partaken in such wrongdoing. Rather, it can illustrate circumstances where an individual has clear awareness of what constitutes unethical conduct. Accountants in business generally observe or encounter more unethical conduct than their colleagues in practice.

Specifically, accountants in business are twice as likely as accountants in practice to have observed or encountered bullying and harassment. Conversely, 42% of accountants in practice have never observed or encountered bullying/harassment compared with only 23% in business. A partial explanation for this finding may be the fact that almost one third (32%) of respondents within the ‘accountants in practice’ cohort are sole practitioners, 46% of whom have never encountered or observed this behaviour.

Further analysis of the online survey shows that at 23%, accountants in business are more likely than accountants in practices with more than 20 partners (11%) to have observed or encountered inappropriate responses to conflicts of interest. An explanation for this difference may be that accountants in practice have a regulatory obligation to formally address conflicts of interests before undertaking audit work with new clients and in reviewing long-standing relationships with existing clients.

Accountants in business are more likely to have observed or encountered dishonesty (saying things that are not true). Also, 27% of accountants in practice have never observed or encountered dishonesty, compared with 21% of accountants in business. Again, the explanation may be the greater regulatory oversight over accountants in practice.

Accountants in practices with more than 20 partners are one third more likely than accountants in practice generally to have observed or encountered manipulation of information. Such differences may be explained by the fact that accountants in practice, as auditors, are more exposed to clear examples of manipulation – for example, the overstatement of accruals. Furthermore, 32% of accountants in business and 27% of accountants in practice report that they have never encountered or experienced manipulation of information. This phenomenon of never having encountered this type of unethical conduct could be a factor of length of career, given that 51% of respondents’ with five years or less experience report having never experienced or encountered manipulation of information.

The survey shows that 32% of accountants in business and 26% of accountants in practice report that they encountered or experienced misrepresentation of information either often or occasionally. Conversely, accountants in business at 29%, and those in practice at 32%, report that they have never encountered this type of misconduct. Again, this could be a factor of length of career as 50% of respondents with five years or less experience report having never experienced or encountered misrepresentation of information.

Likewise, accountants in business (43%) are twice as likely as accountants in practice (22%) to have observed or encountered unethical human resources (HR) practice. Of the accountants in practice, 47% have never observed or encountered unethical HR practice, compared with only 23% of accountants in business. Accountants in business are likelier to have observed or encountered unethical HR practice (such as lack of transparency in selection and promotions), since their career and promotional paths may be less formalised or structured when compared with their colleagues in practice. 

Interviews and focus groups

Focus group participants suggested that there is greater awareness of ethical issues in the accounting profession, perhaps as a reaction to reported high-profile wrongdoing by professional bodies and regulators in the media. However, this is as yet insufficient to guarantee ethical behaviour. One interviewee in practice emphasised that ethics is fundamental, inherently doing the right thing – not just in response to professional regulations. Behaviour should be based on the correct values. This view was echoed in focus groups where there was a belief that behaviour should be based on principles rather than compliance. The concept of culture came up again and again, that ethics needs to be part-and-parcel of the everyday life of an organisation. This is consistent with culture as an antecedent of awareness in the ethics literature.

The focus groups stressed that there should be an awareness of the accountant’s obligation to society, especially in larger firms which are involved with public interest entities and many stakeholders. There was general agreement that ethics should be an intrinsic part of organisational culture in both business and practice. In particular, partners in practice have a huge responsibility to do the right thing and lead by example.

One interviewee made the point that being a qualified accountant is a very privileged position, as it is difficult to achieve and the examinations are not easy. So, why would you want to jeopardise that with misbehaviour? In similar vein, personal pride and safeguarding one’s own reputation was emphasised in the recently qualified accountants’ focus group.

The difference between regulatory compliance and ethics, meaning ‘doing the right thing’, was discussed in focus groups. A particular issue in this regard is tax planning, where participants voiced their unease about highly sophisticated tax avoidance schemes.

Accountants in business are more isolated with respect to their professional obligations and ethics than those in practice, where professional duties as an accountant are foremost in their jobs. This is even more apparent in smaller organisations, as larger organisations usually have guidelines or code of ethics.

Overall, when questioned in person about the notion of acting in the public interest as part of being a professional, the study participants found it a nebulous concept. When it comes to decision-making, “you act for your client”. The recently qualified accountants we interviewed were of the view that more recently qualified accountants may be more ‘switched on’ about ethics compared to those who have been in the profession longer. They took the view that more experienced professional accountants are more influenced by loyalty and familiarity to the client and this may take precedence in decision-making. They believe that recently qualified accountants are more conscious of accountability for their actions and the consequences of wrongdoing.

Enhancing ethical awareness

Among the study’s participants, there was a high level of awareness about ethical issues and challenges in business and practice alike. Moreover, conducting this research in itself engaged professional accountants with the essential and relevant subject matter of professional and business ethics. Interview and focus group participants expressed an appetite for more such activity.

This suggests that ethics education and training based on real-life issues and dilemmas and in-depth discussions should form a key part of both initial formation and continuing professional development (CPD) of professional accountants to create and advance ethical awareness, embracing principles. Where this is not practical, online discussion groups should be considered. The professional bodies are well-placed to play a significant role in making available such practical supports, training and CPD to their members. Cognisance of moral intensity factors such as magnitude of consequences for society of wrongdoing should form part of the discussion. A more principled ethical orientation of individuals who are relativists can itself be cultivated through such discussions.

The challenge for us all is to create more ethically aware organisations. There is an opportunity for professional accountants in business and in practice to take a leadership role in fostering a positive ethical culture in their organisations. Such an approach could produce a virtuous process between culture, awareness and ethical action.

Full details of the recent ethics research, which was carried out with the support of Chartered Accountants Ireland Education Trust, is available online from Chartered Accountants Ireland Ethics Resource Centre. To view the report, visit CharteredAccountants.ie/ethics.

Dr Eleanor O’Higgins is Adjunct Associate Professor at UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School. Matt Kavanagh is a human resources consultant and part-time lecturer at the Centre for Corporate Governance in UCD.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Accountancy Ireland.