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student insights

How to master your ethics training

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Sep 2023

young man student teacher laptop office class ICAEW Students ethics review

Ethics is fundamental to the ACA and your future career as a chartered accountant acting in the public interest. Here’s how to get the most out of your training.

1 Understand the dual requirement

While ethics and professional scepticism are embedded throughout the ACA, the ethics section of your online training file consists of two key areas. The first is the theory - the Ethics Learning Programme where you must work through a series of modules and pass an assessment. The second is the application - ongoing discussion of ethics scenarios with your employer, held and documented at least every six months throughout your training.

2 Complete the Ethics Learning Programme early on in your training

Unlike the other aspects of the online training file, completing the programme doesn’t require support from your employer, and will show a nice “green tick” on your training file. Securing ethics knowledge early will also help you to score the ethics marks available in each of the exams, so it’s best to do it before you start the Professional Level exams.

But remember, passing the ethics assessment doesn’t mark the end of your ethics training. This theory needs to be applied and practised via the scenarios. This is where the learning really happens.

3 Start the conversation and keep it going

It is the ethics scenario discussions with your Qualified Person Responsible for Training (QPRT), counsellor or principal within your six-monthly reviews that offer the most valuable opportunities for learning. “Those conversations are a ‘safe space’ in which to practise and develop your skills,” says Nicola Mower, Senior Training and CPD Manager. “Before each six-monthly review, you should be looking at three of the Ethics in Practice scenarios, really considering them and trying to form your own opinion.”

4 Be prepared to talk…

“Ethics is a very human-centred thing – and the only way to really learn about it is to sit down with another human and go through it,” says Nicola. “The six-monthly reviews give you a unique opportunity to speak to somebody with a wealth of experience and have an open conversation about these issues.” While you can talk about real-life ethical situations that you may have come across at work or read about in the press, the 18 scenarios are designed to form the basis of your discussions, and become increasingly complex to reflect your growing skills and responsibilities. “The QPRT’s role is to add flavour and colour, bring in elements of experience and really bring it to life,” explains Nicola. “But this isn’t a hierarchical situation – you’re not there to be talked at. We all inherently have our own values and principles, so your input is completely valid – and necessary.”

There are no right and wrong answers in ethics – something that can be challenging to get your head around at first, says Nicola. “Students often just want to know, ‘What’s the answer?’ But there isn’t one – it’s your thinking,” she explains. “That’s why ethics can’t be assessed in the same way as some of the more theoretical aspects of the ACA. There’s often very little black and white here. It’s about looking at and understanding the grey in something, and considering the most ethical response, even when there isn’t a clear route.” 

You should come to your six-monthly reviews prepared: take time to consider the scenarios, form your opinions and be ready to talk about them. “Come with your own ideas,” says Nicola. “You don’t need to overcomplicate it – you already believe and know these things. It’s about your gut, and what you know is right.”

5 And be prepared to listen

As well as coming to your six-monthly reviews ready to talk, being prepared to listen is just as important. “Remember this is a discussion,” says Nicola. “You should form your own opinion, but come prepared to consider what the other person’s might be and keep an open mind throughout – especially when you’ve got that more experienced person who is going to be having that discussion with you. It’s about trying to see things through different lenses and putting yourself in other people’s shoes.” 

Make sure you’ve allowed enough time to have an in-depth discussion – you should plan for a six-monthly review meeting to take around an hour. “There’s no point in just skirting around and not really getting into it,” Nicola explains. “If you allow it the time and come with a really open mind, there’s so much value in it. Let your guard down, be a bit vulnerable and you’ll get the most out of it.”

6 Record ethics reviews properly

You need to complete an ethics review every six months and, as with all elements of the online training file, it’s important to record it properly. “We know and expect that ethics is discussed all the time, but you have to formalise that discussion using the scenarios at least every six months, and you need to log it in your file,” says Nicola. “You can have the best discussion in the world for two hours, but if you haven’t written it down, you haven’t met the requirement.” 

7 Embrace lifelong learning

As you progress through the Ethics in Practice scenarios, the situations become more complex and judgemental. “If anything, ethics gets a bit harder rather than easier – which is why it’s all about practice. At this stage in your career you may not be coming across real situations – the scenarios are there to gear you up to be able to deal with those situations in the future if and when they arise.”

Ethics and professional scepticism are difficult to teach, but with practice you will become more skilled over time. In reality, the ethical situations you will face in your career are likely to be nuanced, rather than headline-grabbing criminal cases, Nicola explains. “People often jump to major things like covering up fraud or being sacked for gross misconduct, but by the time you get to that point several layers of ethics have fallen down,” she says. “We’re talking about the consistency of always pivoting towards the right thing and applying a questioning mindset – keeping yourself in the right direction. You could call it ‘micro ethics.’” 

As a chartered accountant, you will be seen as somebody who can identify issues, apply reasonable judgements and be relied upon to do the right thing. “It’s about your day-to-day behaviours. Can you consistently show up with integrity? This training will help you be aware of those threats to ethical principles, be able to spot them – and, crucially, act on them.”

Discover more about the Ethics Learning Programme.

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