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Ethical challenges in accountancy under spotlight

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 28 Apr 2023

A free webinar in June aims to bring accountants up to speed on current hurdles facing the profession’s principles and to outline strategies for making better ethical decisions.

In late 2021, a special Ethics Survey from the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies (CCAB) found that, in the previous three years, 27% of respondents had either been put under pressure or felt under pressure to act in a professionally unethical way – while 54% had felt under some form of threat to compromise their ethical standards.

Among the main areas of concern, respondents cited pressure to downplay risks in budgets, business cases and cash-flow forecasts; to categorise personal expenses incurred by staff, directors or shareholders as company expenses; and to ‘get around’ local policies, standing orders, financial instructions and/or procurement regulations.

On 15 June, CCAB will engage with the profession about the current state of ethics with a free webinar. As well as highlighting lessons learned from the Ethics Survey, the event will outline strategies for making better ethical decisions and discuss the key challenges and opportunities that accountants are facing today.

New competencies

The free webinar, Resilience Under Pressure, will be led by CCAB Ethics Group Chair Iain Lowson, former Chair of ICAEW’s Ethics Standards Committee. He will introduce a series of recorded interviews with a range of subject-matter experts, covering topics such as ethical decision-making, ethics as a competency and ethical culture within organisations, plus the unique challenges arising from artificial intelligence and sustainability.

The event will also feature a presentation on ‘speaking up’ and a Q&A session with representatives of CCAB member bodies and its Ethics Group.

Ahead of the webinar, its expert contributors have provided some initial thoughts on the areas they will explore. On ethics as a competency, Chartered Accountants Ireland Head of Ethics and Governance Níall Fitzgerald notes: “The way in which business is done is changing and accountants need to adapt to the changing circumstances. There are new competencies to learn. What is artificial intelligence? What is blockchain? What is sustainability? How does that impact my organisation?”

“You have to understand your own conscience,” says academic, accountant and public body leader Professor Pat Barker. With an eye on organisational culture, she continues: “That’s a kind of old-fashioned word that isn’t much used – but it’s still very much there. You have to understand: ‘Where is my red line? What will I not step over? What will I never do?’ And in the heat of the hunt, you have to be able to say: ‘Is this the right thing?’”

For Professor Chris Cowton, Institute of Business Ethics Associate Director, the great enemy of ethical decision-making is rushing: “That tends to happen because of pressure,” he says. “Pressure to meet deadlines, pressure to meet KPIs – whatever it tends to be, pressure is one of the great factors. So sometimes we’ve got to carve out space and just stop and think. The great friend of ethical decision-making is: stop and think.”

On the challenges around sustainability, ICAEW Deputy President Malcolm Bacchus notes: “If you look at a business’s risk profile, what’s one of the biggest risks? It’s losing customers. And the general public is getting more and more concerned about whether a business is responsible; about whether a business is ethical; about whether a business is sustainable. Those businesses which aren’t – and we’ve seen examples of them – lose their customers.”

Commenting on the event, ICAEW Senior Lead, Ethics, David Gomez says: “A key takeaway from the seminar will be that ethics is a professional competency, not just a ‘nice to have’. You have to consciously work at maintaining your competency in ethics – flex and exercise it like a muscle – in order to keep your competency in shape and up to date. The resources from this seminar will complement the suite of wide-ranging, ethics-related CPD modules ICAEW has been preparing for its members, which are due to be launched later this year.”

Sign up for the webinar here.

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