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Professional conduct extends beyond the office

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 01 Sep 2020

ICAEW has seen an increase in complaints about members' professional behaviour. This article dispels some common misconceptions about what it means.

The Chartered Accountant that assaulted someone. The ICAEW member that sent letters to a competitor’s clients calling them a rude word. The ACA student that said offensive things about his boss on an email thread. Each of these examples can be found on ICAEW’s disciplinary hearings summaries thread, among the more commonplace compliance and regulatory breaches.

Professional conduct cases have been on the rise in recent years, partly because people are more comfortable in coming forward with complaints. But there’s also a misconception among some members that their personal conduct, inside and outside of work, does not come under the same Code of Conduct as their professional work. In fact, members can be reprimanded, fined or even excluded from the Institute for the way they conduct themselves personally. 

This is covered under Subsection 115 of the new Code of Ethics. “Professional Behaviour: A professional accountant shall comply with the principle of professional behaviour, which requires an accountant to comply with relevant laws and regulations and avoid any conduct that the accountant knows or should know might discredit the profession. A professional accountant shall not knowingly engage in any business, occupation or activity that impairs or might impair the integrity, objectivity or good reputation of the profession, and as a result would be incompatible with the fundamental principles.”

Not just how you deal with clients

“Professional behaviour is not just about how you deal with clients,” says Carrie Langridge, ICAEW’s Senior Manager – General, Compliance and Tax Investigations. “It’s also how you deal with staff, for example. We get complaints from trainees, employees, other accountants and members of the public. We also will investigate sexual misconduct complaints, such as inappropriate behaviour by a member in a senior position.”

Social media can be a big stumbling block when it comes to professional behaviour and ICAEW has seen an increase in complaints relating to social posts. “Social media has a really wide reach and people don’t think about that,” says Langridge. “There are always going to be misunderstandings. Members need to really think about the wider context of what they’re posting. It isn’t always necessarily something offensive or aggressive – a picture on Instagram could give away details of confidential information, for example.”

The Institute has created a training video, Without Question, which covers some of the issues around posting work-related information on social media. Members also have access to a helpsheet on best practice for social media.

Here are some common incidences of poor conduct that are likely to receive sanctions:

  • Inappropriate behaviour at an office party
  • Physical fights
  • Verbal abuse/bullying/intimidation
  • Social media spats
  • Blogs full of disparaging comments about other people
  • Racist terms
  • Derogatory terms for poor mental health

ICAEW’s Professional Conduct Department will take a careful and objective look at each case. They will review the context of the complaint and carefully consider the evidence presented to them. 

“Everyone accepts that people can make errors of judgment, but there are errors and then there are really serious errors of judgment,” says Langridge. “This kind of unprofessional behaviour is taken very seriously, and complaints will be investigated thoroughly.”

Confidential help

If members are unsure about whether any activities would breach the Code of Ethics, they can use ICAEW’s ethical helpline for confidential advice – advisers on the helpline are exempt from the duty to report misconduct. More details can be found on the Technical and Ethics Support page on the ICAEW website.

If you are aware of a member’s misconduct, you have a duty to report that misconduct. Updated guidance on this will be issued in October. Visit icaew.com/complaints for information on how to submit a valid complaint.