Strong ethical principles and behaviour will become more important in the evolving digital age, and a key enabler to building trust.
Ethical behaviour is a core attribute for professional accountants. Our global survey examines the attitudes to ethics among 10,000 professional and trainee accountants, and over 500 senior ('C-suite') managers.
More than 8 in 10 of these accountants around the world were of the view that strong ethical principles and behaviour will become more important in the evolving digital age.
Furthermore, 9 in 10 professional accountants agree that ethical behaviour helps to build trust in the digital age.
And 94% agree that the fundamental principles for accountants established by the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA) still apply and remain relevant in the digital age. These are Integrity, Objectivity, Professional Competence and due care, Confidentiality and Professional behaviour.
Strong ethical principles and behaviour will become more important in the evolving digital age
It seems likely that risks of compromise go way beyond issues of honest and straight-forward professional and business relationships.
The fundamental principle identified as being under threat of compromise was 'professional competence and due care'.
Reacting properly requires building up a high standard of knowledge and understanding of the situation and its context before being able to act in an ethical manner.
It is difficult to apply ethical judgment regarding the use of distributed ledgers for example, without an understanding of what they are, and the opportunities and challenges they pose.
Ethics begins with me
'Upholding their own professional code' was identified by professional accountants as the best way of contributing to their organisation's ability to uphold ethics – a view that 'ethics begins with me'.
However a strategic understanding may become particularly important when looking ahead to new or previously unseen situations in a digital age.
If procedures have not been tested and well understood over several years, say if dealing with a new area such as the adoption of platform-based operations, then it becomes particularly important to understand the strategy and purpose to avoid the wrong procedure and unintended consequences.
Support for promoting ethics in organisations
Strong leadership to set the tone at the top was cited as the top area (by about two-thirds of respondents) where support is needed for promoting ethical behaviour in organisations.
A substantial minority did not report an incident, did not see reporting of bad practice as a way of contributing or did not cite a ‘speak-up’ policy, with appropriate anonymity or protection as an area where support would help.
This may be an area that needs further strengthening in order to help professional accountants to act as the ‘ethical conscience’ of their organisations.
Action points for professional accountants
Professional accountants should think about the following aspects as they navigate ethical situations in the digital age:
- Build knowledge of emerging technologies and digital issues: to reduce risk of compromise to professional competence and due care
- Combine process control with a strategic view: to reduce the risk of unintended consequences
- Evaluate mechanisms for reporting unethical behaviour: to reduce the risk of breaches.
– the future
"Professional accountants have an obligation to act in the public interest. If there was a data breach, they should endeavour to inform the end user, the customer or the client, at the earliest opportunity and let them know that their confidential information has been exposed…rather than seeking to protect the interests or reputation of the organisation."Ken Siong, technical director, IESBA
Applying the 'ethical lens'
To bring a human lens to what an ethical challenge could actually look like, the report examines two such challenges across each of six digital themes:
2. Platform-based business models
3. Big data and analytics
4. Cryptocurrencies and distributed ledgers
5. Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning
6. Procurement of technology