This article was first published in the November/December 2019 International edition of 
Accounting and Business magazine.

In 2013, the Australian Army was hit by a scandal involving a network of men who distributed explicit footage of women filmed without their consent.

In response to the scandal, the then chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, posted a powerful video warning that the army would not tolerate such behaviour. He also challenged every member of the army to show moral courage and take a stand. ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,’ he declared.   

Accountants and finance professionals will recognise this as a fundamental part of the profession’s ethos: your job is to protect your organisation by providing frank and fearless advice. This could involve something as easy as recommending the most appropriate accounting treatment or as difficult as reporting a suspected internal fraud. Regardless of the size of the challenge, though, you draw on your moral courage to do your job properly.

Experienced finance professionals are used to the pressures that this entails, and we tend to be confident in demonstrating our moral courage within our own areas of expertise. But how do we apply that same courage outside the accounting sphere – to bullying, say, or other negative behaviour? How do we take a stand when we do not have the support of the power and confidence conferred by our expertise?

I’ve observed that those in professional positions, and accountants in particular, often have greater power than they may think they do when it comes to influencing corporate culture. Finance is frequently seen as an (if not the) arbiter of value creation. Financial expertise can therefore be a powerful lever for influencing decision-makers.

I was once working with an organisation where inappropriate behaviour was a known problem. Management was reluctant to address the issue for fear of upsetting the high-fliers in the team in question. Concerned as much for moral as for performance reasons, the head of finance incorporated forecasts of future financial provision for sexual harassment claims (including a not-so-rough and quite aggressive estimate of the potential costs) in the management reports. The corporate cost of allowing that sort of behaviour to continue suddenly became much clearer to management, and action was taken.

That is a particularly pointed example, but there are many other avenues of influence open to those who hold positions of trust in their organisation. Encouraging respectful behaviour in meetings, leading team discussions on issues of respect and trust, or having a quiet word with another team leader, can all have a significant impact when they come from someone whose role is not explicitly focused on culture and behaviour.

So if your answer to the question ‘Is this a standard I am willing to accept?’ is no, you should pluck up your courage. You may well have more power to successfully challenge that standard than you think.

Vanessa Richard is a corporate communications and governance consultant in Australia.