By Ann Buttery, CA, Head of Ethics, ICAS Standards, and Secretary to the ICAS Ethics Board
20 February 2019
Corporate scandals have become super-sized in recent times, so it is little wonder that public trust has been lost in business. Scandals exist, so how can we, as individual CAs, avoid being party to the next one?
Brazil’s Odebrecht construction company bribed South American and African politicians and is referred to as one of the largest corruption scandals in history; the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal fitted cars with ‘defeat devices’ to pass emission tests; and Japanese Kobe Steel admitted to falsifying figures on the strength of its aluminium products sold to car and airline manufacturers, and defence industries.
And we here in the UK have our own list of scandals making the headlines.
As a strong counterweight to the above, here are the Ethics Board's seven golden ethical principles to live by:
1. Be an ethical leader
This means having the courage to challenge others when necessary.
By living the ICAS ethics principles and using them to guide our everyday actions and inspire others’ behaviour, we can be influential.
No matter what our role is, whether we are newly qualified or on a Board of Directors, we should demonstrate ethical leadership that influences those around us.
2. Use moral courage
As CAs we can be under great pressure to meet deadlines, garner good financial results, or keep lucrative clients. People that do something wrong are not always inherently bad people - everyone is capable of acting differently when under pressure.
Making a stand against unethical behaviour can be even more difficult when others acquiesce to inappropriate conduct. The harsh reality is that if we suspect impropriety and do nothing, we can be found guilty of condoning it, and implicated in a scandal.
‘The Power of One’ publication ‘Moral Courage’ recognises that it takes real courage to stand up against unethical behaviour, sometimes at personal expense.
3. Consider personal and professional reputation
A professional’s reputation is his or her personal brand – it enables us to get jobs, build careers, win clients, influence change, and it is how we will be remembered.
All of us need to be aware of the potential reputational consequences of our individual actions, or indeed our inaction. Ultimately, unethical behaviour could lead to reputational ruin for us as individuals and for our organisations and bring discredit to our profession.
4. Set the right tone at the top
Board members, or higher levels of management, are the custodians of an organisation’s future and must establish an appropriate ‘tone at the top’ to ensure sustainability.
We must value colleagues and establish an appropriate culture to ensure individuals feel empowered to ‘speak up’ if an issue arises. Even more important is ensuring allegations are properly listened to and appropriately investigated.
It is not only up to Board members. ICAS’ ‘The CA and the organisation’ paper concludes that ICAS ethics principles generally align with organisational values; by championing these in our daily lives, all of us are in a strong position to assist organisations in living the ethical values to which they aspire.
5.Maintain an enquiring mindset
It is the enquiring mindset which allows you to question whether something seems reasonable. Have the correct assumptions been used? Is the information complete? Does this align with my expectations?
Ethical dilemmas may start off as innocuous and immaterial, but snowball into an issue. Problems need to be nipped in the bud to avoid escalation beyond our control.
The new ‘Non-compliance with laws and regulations’ (NOCLAR) sections in the November 2017 ICAS Code of Ethics require that if we, whether as auditors or other professional accountants in public practice or business, discover, or suspect, non-compliance with laws and regulations directly impacting material items in financial statements, or are fundamental to an organisation’s operations, we must take the appropriate action.
6. Consider the public interest
The ‘third party test’ in the ICAS Code of Ethics is a helpful benchmark. Ultimately, it is about how our actions could be viewed by others.
What would an objective, reasonable and informed third party conclude? If they would conclude that a course of action is inappropriate, don’t do it, don’t condone it, and have the moral courage to do something about it.
7. Consider ‘the right, the good and the virtuous’ actions
With our unique vantage point across business operations, CAs are well placed to identify and challenge unethical decisions and behaviours.
ICAS’ guidance paper ‘The Ethical Journey – The Right, the Good and the Virtuous’ guides the ethical decision-making process:
Ethics includes the consideration of the right, the good, and the virtuous actions to take in a particular circumstance, reaching a judgement, and having the resolve and courage to act accordingly.
Pause for thought and reflect, to broaden your perspective when facing an ethical decision, and challenge or influence the behaviour of others.
In so doing, help restore the trust lost in business in recent years.