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Accountants battle rising pressure to act unethically

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 16 Dec 2021

More than one in four professional accountants say they have been put under pressure or felt under pressure to act in an unethical way over the past three years, new research has found, with the economic effects of the pandemic, the need to hit targets and austerity identified as some of the drivers likely to increase the risk of unethical behaviour.

Pressure to prepare overly optimistic budgets, business cases and forecasts; categorise personal expenses as business expenses; and side-step financial policies and regulations are all cited by respondents to a survey by CCAB, which brings together five professional accountancy organisations in the UK and Ireland, including ICAEW. 

A majority of respondents who reported feeling under pressure to act unethically said pressure came from internal sources such as line managers or those in senior director-level roles including the CFO or CEO. Almost one in five cited pressure from clients and a further 10% said pressure came from their Board, Council or Cabinets.

Of those who said they had been put under pressure to act unethically, almost 80% spoke up against the unethical action. Over half of professional accountants - 54% – said they felt under threat in some way. And many suffered serious consequences including being dismissed, being briefed against, facing false allegations, “gaslighting” and poor performance reviews. 

At the same time, many respondents admitted the pressure to behave unethically had had a detrimental impact on their mental health, triggering episodes of anxiety, depression and stress. 

Commenting on the findings, Iain Lowson, chair of the CCAB Ethics Group, said ethics was at the heart of being a professional accountant. “It is clear that ethical pressures are a real problem for a significant number of accountants. On the other hand, it is encouraging that so many accountants feel empowered to speak out against unethical pressures and practices and that so many respondents say they promote an ethics-based culture in their organisations.”

Lowson urged accountants who felt exposed to ethical pressure to approach their professional body for support. “Accountants’ professional membership bodies are useful sources of training, advice and support and each will have their own Code of Ethics based on the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA). We would urge any accountants who feel exposed to ethical pressures to approach their professional body for support and to refresh their knowledge of the relevant code.”

Omid Tissier, ICAEW’s Economic Crime and Ethics Manager said: “It is encouraging to see that a very high proportion of professional accountants appear to be speaking up against pressures to act unethically. And with many of these pressures originating from co-workers, including line managers and more senior staff members, it is important that organisations operate effective ‘speak-up’ networks and encourage staff to come forward with concerns and ensure that there is zero-tolerance for retaliation against staff who do come forward.”

A total of 445 completed responses to the CCAB ethics survey were recorded.

ICAEW provides a comprehensive array of resources to help members address ethical issues, including technical helpsheets and specific advice on navigating some of the ethical issues arising as a result of the pandemic

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