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Calling out unprofessional behaviour

Author: ICAEW

Published: 07 Oct 2022

ICAEW’s Code of Ethics outlines the standards of behaviour expected of chartered accountants and affiliates including those we regulate for reserved activities. We look at recent trends in ethics complaints received by ICAEW, and ask what firms and individuals can do to prevent and report problems. The Code of Ethics applies to all ICAEW members and ICAEW member firms and requires them to adhere to five fundamental principles: integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality, and professional behaviour.

ICAEW’s Professional Conduct Department (PCD) receives complaints covering a range of failures to comply with these principles. The main trend in the past couple of years has been the continuing rise in complaints about unprofessional behaviour Complaints about plagiarism in online exams and submissions are also on the increase.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons behind these trends. But to some extent they reflect wider developments in society and the workplace, including new ways of working prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and evolving societal attitudes about what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.

‘Me too’

Carrie Langridge, Senior Manager for General, Compliance and Tax Investigations at ICAEW, believes the ‘me too’ movement has played a significant role in the rise in complaints about unprofessional behaviour.

“It has increased publicity of poor conduct in this area, which has led to more people being willing to stand up and say: ‘This isn't acceptable behaviour’,” she explains. “And it's been on the radar for a while.”

“I think it's probably linked to greater awareness, as opposed to people being more likely to behave in this way,” adds Sarah Brook, Senior Manager, Special Investigations Team, ICAEW. “It’s also reflecting difficulties in trying to get the message across to the people that might behave inappropriately, so that they realise they shouldn't be behaving in that way.”

Langridge believes greater blurring between professional and private lives may also be playing a role. This blurring has been exacerbated by COVID and the shift to working online from home. “Hybrid and flexible working weren't the norm,” she says. “But they are now, and that does slightly change how people behave.”

“When they’re in the office, people are in work clothes; they know they're in work, and they know they must behave professionally,” she explains. “But when they’re dialling into calls from home and possibly sitting in their bedroom or at their dining room table, the lines are blurred.” People might speak and act more informally and do or say things they wouldn’t in their office environments.

A more traditional example of blurring is poor behaviour at a work Christmas party. “You're not required to attend by your employer, and it’s a party, but would you be there if you weren't employed?” says Langridge. “And the answer is no. So for us, that would veer into professional.”

“A lot of professional behaviour complaints we get do tend to be around those sorts of scenarios,” she adds. “Poor behaviour in the middle of the workday, in the middle of the office, is much less common.”

Plagiarism on the rise

Plagiarism is another area where complaints are increasing. “This also links into the changes in the way we're working, which were accelerated during the pandemic,” suggests Langridge. There are now more submissions made online and remote examinations, and that trend will continue.

This raises some significant challenges, including ensuring people aren’t cheating on a remote exam or making an online submission copied from a sample answer or from one of their colleagues.

“It’s a growing area of concern,” says Langridge. “And we’re seeing it in different contexts. For example, perhaps someone submits their experience and it looks very, very similar to somebody else’s.”

Most of the plagiarism complaints are generated by ICAEW internally via the examinations department. “It might be found through the use of plagiarism software,” she explains, “which highlights if there are large chunks of a submission that are similar to another entry, or even from sample answers included on the Internet.”

“It’s not necessarily black and white,” she adds. Sometimes there are only so many ways to say something, and there is a lot of common terminology used in accountancy. “But we would be focusing on things such as does this look like it's been lifted in its entirety from somewhere else?”

“As part of your submission, you’re required to sign that this is your submission,” she explains. “And that it is an accurate reflection of the work you’ve done.” So these types of failures come under the integrity principle in the Code of Ethics, which requires accountants to be straightforward and honest in their dealings.

Another type of complaint, although not new or increasing, that continues to come into PCD regularly is incorrect completion of staff expenses. “This is one that we've had for a good few years,” says Langridge. “But it's still an ongoing theme.”

From ICAEW’s point of view, the cases it investigates in this area involve significant incorrect claiming of expenses, where a member’s integrity has been compromised. “Obviously, employers have their own specific policies,” she explains. “So we don't generally look at claims that are just outside of their employer’s policy. What we would be looking at, for example, is where a person has claimed for the same hotel stay three times.”

Duty to report

All ICAEW members and firms have a duty to report misconduct. “As a general rule, a lot of the complaints about unprofessional behaviour come through from firms under this duty, often after they have completed their own internal disciplinary processes,” explains Langridge.

ICAEW has produced guidance on the duty to report misconduct, which includes information on the sorts of issues people should be reporting. Most larger firms have their own policies stating that if disciplinary action is taken against someone and they are sanctioned, for example dismissed for gross misconduct, then it will be reported to ICAEW.

This doesn’t stop the member accused of poor behaviour from also having an obligation to self-report. “And I would suggest it's in their interests to make their own report, because then they may get credit for having raised it with us,” says Langridge.

Sometimes complaints will come from other sources. They might be an ICAEW member and reporting under the duty to report, but if they're not, that doesn't stop them from raising it. The victim can contact ICAEW to make a report and they might want to act as the complainant. Alternatively, ICAEW could be the complainant and take the case forward in the public interest. This way, victims can feel confident in coming forward to report potential disciplinary matters, while ICAEW, as the regulator, takes on the responsibility of being the complainant. The support of the victim will still be needed in this scenario as their experience will be part of the evidence of the conduct.

Calling it out

Langridge advises all firms to remind themselves of the Code of Ethics, and to check ICAEW’s guidance on the duty to report misconduct, which includes information on professional behaviour issues.

Brook also suggests firms make sure they have up-to-date and robust policies about what is acceptable behaviour in the working environment, including for newer hybrid working styles.

These should set out specifically what is expected of people working remotely, and what they can, and can’t, do. “This just makes sure that things are controlled a bit more,” she says, “and creates the right type of environment, so that the line between personal and professional doesn't become as blurred.”

It’s not just about having policies; it’s also about making sure staff understand them. “Have you asked them if they’ve got any questions?” says Langridge. “And if policies have changed, have you made sure people know that.”

For their part, individuals also need to understand the ethical obligations they’re under and know what policies they’re expected to comply with. “Make sure you look at the Code of Ethics, and check your obligations as an employee, and as an ICAEW member, because they might not always be the same,” she says.

Above all, she urges everyone to take responsibility for their actions and behaviours. “If you see something wrong, then raise it. You need to be willing to stand up and say: ‘Actually that conduct, that behaviour, is not acceptable’.”


i ICAEW members includes provisional members, affiliates, foundational qualification holders and provisional foundation qualification holders

ii ICAEW member firms includes the employees of a member firm or an affiliate

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