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Rebuilding trust in the profession

Colleen Welsh CA, UK Accountant at Skyscanner and the winner of the Top 100 young CAs Trust category, shares her perspective on how CAs can help restore trust in the profession.

When I tell people what I do – that I am a member of this worldwide, professional, prestigious “family” that is ICAS – the response I get is almost always the same. “You don’t look like a CA”, or my personal favourite, “But you’re not posh enough to be a CA!”.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s still very much a stereotype of what a chartered accountant is. I’m almost certain that I challenge most, if not all, of those stereotypes. For me, this speaks volumes about how far ICAS has come and how diverse and inclusive we truly are. When you are a part of ICAS –when you are on the inside looking in – you can truly see that there is “no one size fits all” when it comes to being a member.

A failing in trust

I am immensely proud to be a CA – proud of our institute, of our values, of our members and the work we are doing to better the world. However, it’s easy to see why trust in the profession is facing unprecedented challenges.

Figures from Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) 2018 Financial Lives survey shows that only 31 per cent of the UK public feels that financial firms are “honest and transparent”. Initially, I found those statistics staggering. But thinking about public perception of the profession over the last couple of years, those figures become less surprising.

On the rare occasion you hear accountancy mentioned in the press, the sad reality is that it’s generally negative. We’re all aware of recent failings in our profession; however, rather than focus on the negative stories, I believe we should focus on how we, as individuals and as a membership, can work to restore trust in our profession.

The Power of One

ICAS launched The Power of One, a business ethics initiative, a few years ago. The underlying message of the initiative is that every individual CA has the power to make positive changes in the profession. While there is strength in numbers and working towards the same goal, we shouldn’t underestimate the fire that can be started by one match. If every individual CA strives to be a force for good, we can do our part in restoring trust in our profession.

Historically, ICAS has always had the five key ethical principles: objectivity, integrity, confidentiality, professional care and professional competency. Those are ingrained into our minds from the very first day of lectures at ICAS.

For me, moral courage is one of if not the most important, of the ethical principles, especially given the trust crisis we currently find ourselves in. Standing up and speaking out against unethical and dubious behaviour is a responsibility that is upon us all. And I hope I can rely on CAs to do just that.

Standing up for what is right

I acknowledge that speaking up against what you believe to be unethical behaviour can be intimidating. Particularly if speaking to someone more senior to you. However, courage is overcoming fear, not the absence of fear, and sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are one and the same.

It can also be lonely, isolating even. To that, I would like to remind you that ICAS has placed moral courage at the forefront of what it stands for and you are not alone. You have thousands of members standing right behind you. And by not acting when you know something is wrong, you become complicit. I truly believe that moral courage will pave the way for us to restore confidence in our profession.

On a personal level, moral courage has led to positive changes in my career. After qualifying as a CA, I took on an informal mentor role at a previous firm of mine, where I noticed a pattern of our students becoming stressed and often depressed or anxious thereafter due to the pressures of studying and working full time. For me, there was something notably missing in terms of the support being offered to those struggling with their mental health at work.

At only 21, I had to approach the partner group of my firm and explain to them what the problem was and come up with suggestions on how we could resolve this issue. This included me training as a Mental Health First Aider and working with my colleagues to raise awareness of mental health.

Since then, I have worked for several practices, and with their leadership teams, to mirror these changes. This path I have taken is one that I’ve paved of my own accord – as mentioned earlier, never underestimate the fire one match can start.

Going forward

The road ahead to restoring trust in our profession will undoubtedly be a long one but having spoken and listened to many inspiring CAs, I am certain we will make it. We know where we want our destination to be – a world where people (the public, potential CAs and CAs alike) believe that our profession is trustworthy and transparent.

If we live the Power of One every day, stand up for what we believe to be right and work hard to bring positive changes, I have a feeling that what a ’stereotypical chartered accountant’ looks like in 10 years will be drastically different to how it does now. I hope that the new stereotypes will not be dependent on age or gender or dress code.

I hope the new stereotype will be of a professional who is honest, who is transparent, who is trustworthy, who is morally courageous and who lives the values of our ethics every day. I am a great believer in leaving things in a better condition than when you found them, and I hope all of my fellow CAs will join me in working towards a profession built on trust and transparency for the future.

This article was originally published by ICAS.