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Recent high profile scandals in the financial world have drawn attention to the ethical duties to which all professionals must adhere. When accountants join a regulatory body, they contract to adhere to that body’s ethical standards. However, attempting to do so can prove challenging at times, as evidenced by a recent report by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), which revealed that 37% of respondents felt under pressure from colleagues to compromise their standards. The study surveyed members worldwide to understand the ethical challenges accountants are facing.
Most notably, in the UK specifically, there has been a significant rise in members who have felt under pressure to compromise their organisation’s standards of ethical behaviour; rising from 18% in 2012 to 30% in 2015. The survey also reported an increase in the percentage of respondents in the UK who had observed conduct that violated their organisation’s ethical standards, policy or the law.
It is unclear however whether this represents an increase in unethical behaviour or whether accountants are becoming more alive to their ethical responsibilities and are therefore better placed to report or challenge such conduct. The report indicates that there has been an increase in the number of organisations that have developed their own codes of ethics as well as a rise in organisations providing training on ethical issues.
While accountants should be mindful of their employers’ expectations, they should also be aware of their obligation to comply with the ethical code of their professional body. This will usually include the principles of integrity, objectivity, professional competence, confidentiality and professional behaviour and is likely to complement any code of ethics put in place by an employer.
In addition, most accountancy regulators in the UK require their members to report to their professional body if they think that a member, including a firm, has breached their ethical responsibilities. Failure to “blow the whistle” may even result in a disciplinary finding against the individual.
If you are feeling under pressure to compromise your professional ethics, or if you have become aware of unethical behaviour, it is important that you protect your own interests. A breach of a professional body’s code of ethics can lead to disciplinary proceedings, which could, in serious cases, be career ending. Taking advice at an early stage can ensure that you are able to mitigate any adverse consequences further down the line.
Accountants and other professionals facing ethical dilemmas may find it helpful to contact their regulatory body’s ethical helpline, or, if more guidance is needed, to seek legal advice as soon as possible. Doing so will assist with any future suggestion that a breach of ethical duties has taken place.
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