Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the financial services industry has become more risk-averse and client-centric, responding to pressures from governments, regulators and consumers alike.
'The whole of the financial sector has been the subject of intense scrutiny because of growing scepticism and, ultimately, the loss of trust,' says Michael Hough, director at accountants Quantic UK.
That is why, in recent years, many companies have launched reviews of their practices in an effort to promote ethical conduct and improve adherence to ethical standards amongst their employees. In fact, research from The Economist Intelligence Unit shows that over two-thirds of firms globally have now strengthened their formal code of conduct and the system for evaluating employee behaviour.
'Now, more than ever, professionals must work with a consciousness alongside technical knowledge – a strong sense of what is ethically correct is as important as expertise,' says Hough.
But what does it mean to behave and work ethically?
Simply put, it means doing ‘the right thing’.
'This goes beyond compliance with the law – compliance with relevant standards and regulations is also part of ethical behaviour,' explains Ian Waters, ACCA’s head of standards. 'It also means acting in the public interest.'
We all like to think we have personal ethics and know the difference between right and wrong.
'Personal ethics consist of the morals and values concerned with human character and conduct, some of which would have been instilled in you during childhood when your parents influenced the way in which you act towards the people and environment around you,' says Chris Weston, director at Aston Black Accountants.
It is a fact that personal ethics is unique to each of us. It is also a fact that our personal ethical compass could influence our professional judgment.
'Therefore, in a professional context, we need guidance to help us decide what is "the right thing" to do – a framework or a code setting out principles of ethical behaviour and safeguarding compliance with those principles,' says Waters.
Most professionals are required to comply with an ethical code – in the case of ACCA, you will be required to comply by ACCA’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, which requires that our members uphold five fundamental ethical principles:
- professional competence and due care
- professional behaviour.
'These principles provide a framework to guide the professional accountant, and an expectation of ethical behaviour regardless of one’s personal ethical principles,' says Waters.
This does not mean you need to ignore your personal values when at work.
Ethics is an important element of the ACCA Qualification with the mandatory completion of the Professional Ethics module. Of course, your professional ethical competence and experience will grow as you progress in your career, but there are certain things you should do now to strengthen your appreciation of ethics. For example, you should be absolutely clear on what your company expects from you in terms of ethical behaviour.
'Each company has a code of conduct that employees are expected to adhere to,' says Weston. But he also adds that it is vital that you as a person learn to recognise what is acceptable and ethical behaviour. Read widely and keep up with the news.
Also, know where to turn to for support. Do you know where to go if you face an ethical dilemma? Does your employer have a dedicated ethical enquiries line? Can you raise a concern with your line manager?
In the first instance, and for general advice, you can also use ACCA’s online ethics resource (see 'Related links').
'This explains the framework within the Code for resolving ethical dilemmas. There you will also find case studies and directions to other resources, both within ACCA and externally,' says Waters.