This article gives an overview of ethics and provides a platform for further study on this vitally important aspect of the work of the professional accountant.
The F1/FAB Syllabus states that, on completion the student should ‘recognise that all aspects of business and finance should be conducted in a manner which complies with and is in the spirit of accepted professional ethics and professional values’. The Study Guide sets out four sets of learning outcomes (Sections F1–4):
- fundamental principles of ethical behaviour
- the role of regulatory and professional bodies in promoting ethical and professional standards in the accountancy profession
- corporate codes of ethics
- ethical conflicts and dilemmas.
These are considered in turn in this article. It must be stressed that this is intended to be an introduction, and further detailed study will be necessary to acquire the required level of knowledge and understanding.
FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR
What is ethics?
Ethics is concerned with what society considers to be right or wrong. It therefore relates to standards of behaviour. At first this may appear to overlap with one purpose of law, in that law seeks to address behaviour of which society disapproves. However, ethical principles may be adopted that discourage behaviour that is undesirable but legal. For example, during the expenses scandal that arose in the UK in 2009 regarding claims for reimbursement by politicians, one politician responded to criticism by stating that she had done nothing illegal. This rather missed the point, as the general public may still regard legitimate expenses claims as inappropriate, and therefore unethical.
Ethics lacks the certainty usually provided by the law, as individuals may consider some things that are legal to be unethical. In turn, views on morality differ, so even when ethical principles are codified by professional bodies or commercial organisations, they may be regarded differently according to the moral principles of each individual.
All professions rely on their practitioners adopting not only legal but ethical standards. If accountants behave unethically, their clients will lose confidence in their services, and society in general will no longer trust them or feel that they act in the public interest. The potential effects of this would be devastating, not only to accountants themselves, but the profession and its stakeholders, including individuals, organisations and others affected directly or indirectly by their work.
Approaches to ethics
Ethical behaviour may be defined in terms of duties. Many philosophers have argued that certain core duties are imperatives, and as such will always apply, regardless of circumstances. Absolutists (or dogmatists) admit no exceptions, as these duties are believed to be sacrosanct. They often have their foundations in religion or deeply embedded values, universally accepted by society. The most common examples are the duties not to kill and to always tell the truth. This approach to ethics is sometimes called the deontological approach (from the Greek word ‘deon’, meaning ‘duty’).
Relativists (or pragmatists) accept that duties are important but are prepared to admit exceptions. For example, they may argue that it is right to kill if the cause is just, or to tell a lie if the purpose is noble. So if a frail and terminally ill loved one asks ‘Am I dying?’, it may sometimes be right to lie.
Codes of conduct issued by professional bodies, and corporate codes issued by business organisations, define responsibilities in terms of duties, and may provide guidance on the more common exceptions that apply. As it is impossible to define the appropriate response to every single human interaction, these codes can only serve as sets of minimum standards and have to rely on the inherent willingness of practitioners to deduce what is right or wrong.
Ethical behaviour may also be defined in terms of consequences. This is sometimes referred to as the teleological approach (from the Greek word ‘telos’, meaning ‘the end’). Here, the right course of action is that which will result in the most acceptable outcome. Most acceptable to whom? This is dependent on the ethical stance of those who determine what is an acceptable outcome.
Utilitarians regard the right course of action as that which will benefit the majority, or serve the ‘greater good’. In doing so, the ethical decision may disregard any impact on the minority, believing that they should defer to the greater needs and influence of the majority. On the other hand, pluralists pursue consensus in order to accommodate the needs of both the majority and the minority. Finally, egoists favour courses of action that are right for them. This last, seemingly selfish approach to right and wrong was supported by Adam Smith, the 18th century UK economist, who suggested that pursuit of self-interest is often a catalyst for the creation of prosperity through entrepreneurial innovation and risk taking.
A practical application of these concepts may be considered in relation to the conflicting views on the use of mobile telephones on commuter trains. Should railway users be denied the right to use their mobile telephones while travelling on trains? If one assumes that the majority will tolerate constantly ringing telephones and loud conversations during a railway journey:
- the utilitarian will propose that mobile telephones are acceptable to most commuters, so the minority will have to put up with them
- the pluralist accommodates both groups by setting aside a limited number of ‘quiet’ carriages in which mobile telephones cannot be used
- the egoist decides on the course of action that is most desirable for him, which may in turn be based on profit motive or personal belief.
Using the duty-based and consequentialist-based approaches to ethical decisions may result in different potential outcomes. Consider the case of a highly successful and dynamic chief executive officer who has been caught up in a scandal relating to his personal life, reported widely in the national newspapers and on television, with resultant embarrassment to his organisation. Should he resign? The duty-based approach may suggest that, as a senior executive, he should adopt high moral standards in and out of work, and because he has failed to meet those standards, he should resign. The consequentialist may agree, stating that by not resigning it will result in damage to the reputation of the organisation as long as he remains in office. However, the consequentialist may also disagree, arguing that by resigning the chief executive officer deprives the organisation of his knowledge, skill and experience, which will result in a lack of leadership and direction, at least in the short term. This argument may be reinforced by the view that, in future, other organisations may choose to accept resignations on the same basis, even though the individual’s personal life should have nothing to do with his work.
Led by international bodies such as the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) and its many member associations and institutes, several principles have been identified as being of crucial importance to the profession:
- professional competence and due care
- professional behaviour.
These are discussed in more detail later in the article, as they form the fundamental principles of the ACCA Code on Ethics and Conduct.
It is not adequate to simply identify and articulate the above principles. In order to put them into practice, organisations must adopt values that will promote adherence to the principles, thereby maintaining the confidence of stakeholders. Accountants have to recognise that their duties are not limited to what clients expect of them, and must accept that they have a fiduciary duty, or duty of absolute trust, to a wide range of stakeholders. Table 1 sets out additional values that should be adopted.