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Accountants battle blurred boundaries between personal and professional life

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 13 Jul 2021

The Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies, which includes ICAEW, has agreed common principles on when a member’s behaviour in their personal life could become of interest to their professional body.

Maintaining boundaries between personal and professional lives is difficult when working remotely. As we all spend more of our lives online the risk of blurring the boundaries becomes greater.

The CCAB Ethics Group has published guidance that sets out the core high-level principles that all CCAB professional bodies will apply when considering whether a member has acted in a manner that could discredit the profession in their non-professional life.

Rising social media cases

ICAEW’s professional conduct department reports growing numbers of cases that feature the use of social media and other online communications. These include one individual who posted client data on Snapchat and another who got embroiled in a heated Twitter argument with colleagues that descended into offensive and abusive language.

Not only do these cases demonstrate unprofessional behaviour but they can also lead to damage to the reputation of the profession as they play out in the public domain.

“The rise of social media, and other technology, has meant that what a member does in their personal life can very easily impact on their role as a chartered accountant,” points out Sophie Wales, Head of Ethics and Economic Crime, ICAEW. “You should always think twice before you tweet, post or email and remember that once sent, you can’t control where a comment might end up - and it’s very hard to delete all traces of what has been said.”

“Accountants are, of course, entitled to a private life, but some of the cases seen by ICAEW’s professional conduct department are cautionary tales of people who have crossed the line into unprofessional behaviour,” Wales continued. “The risk of causing discredit to the profession is higher if you identify yourself as an accountant, but even without disclosing your job, Google allows members of the public to very quickly work out who you are. This could result in a complaint to your professional body.”

Conduct factors

The CCAB bodies consider that the following factors are relevant in assessing whether a member’s conduct in their personal life risks breaching their respective professional body’s Code of Ethics, byelaws and regulations. 

When faced with concerning behaviour in a member’s personal life, the questions a professional body are likely to ask are:

  1. Is the behaviour illegal?
  2. Does the conduct bear on the member’s qualities as a professional accountant, for example in relation to their own financial affairs? 
  3. Is the member using their professional qualification as an identifier?
  4. Is the misbehaviour serious, and even though the member is not identifying their professional qualification, the member’s behaviour could be viewed as conduct that might discredit the profession?

It is not just the accountancy profession that is grappling with this issue. Recent disciplinary cases involving solicitors have been testing the boundaries between professional and personal life for the legal profession, prompted in part by the Me Too movement. 

As the pandemic continues to blur the boundaries between personal and professional life, and social media discourse grows increasingly divisive, ICAEW urges members above all to exercise caution and common sense.

For further advice and support, members can contact ICAEW’s Ethics Advisory line on 01908 248 250.

Read the full guidance here: CCAB Guidance on Boundaries of Personal and Professional Life in Ethics