Damage limitation: do past indiscretions necessarily affect your career as a professional?

11 June 2015

While most professionals will be aware that any transgressions in a business capacity may affect their membership of their professional body, it is easy to forget that indiscretions which occurred before you became a member of your professional body, including in your personal life, may also have a significant impact upon your career.

This question came to light again this week in a case before the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales’ (“ICAEW”) Disciplinary Committee.   The ICAEW excluded a provisional member on the basis of her actions prior to becoming a trainee accountant and registering with ICAEW. Ms Adeyala stole over £6,000 worth of gift vouchers from her former employer in 2008, and proceeded to spend the vouchers over the following 5 years. Having had her transactions tracked, Ms Adeyala was convicted of theft on 4 October 2013.

The historic nature of this transgression was not a defence.  The ICAEW Disciplinary Committee found that, while Ms Adeyala’s conduct occurred prior to commencing her training contract, the nature of the offence was contrary to the core attributes required of a professional accountant.  The Committee ruled that any dishonesty is completely contrary to what the public expects of a chartered accountant.

In line with the ethical codes of the majority of professional regulators, the ICAEW Code of Conduct is clear that a member must not only follow the fundamental principles of the Code in relation to their professional life, but they must also adhere to the Code where to fail to do so would bring discredit to the profession. In particular, it is clear that any misdemeanours relating to dishonesty, such a theft or fraud, will be treated particularly seriously by a disciplinary panel. 

Ms Adeyala will not be alone in having skeletons in her closet.  What then can you do if you are concerned that something in your past may have a detrimental impact on your career? The key is to seek advice from the outset as the way in which you approach the issue may have a significant impact on how it is treated by the regulator and your employer. As Ms Adeyala did not disclose to her employer that she was facing charges; her employer could therefore take the view that her lack of transparency aggravated the initial offence.  When her employer became aware of the charges, she was suspended from her job prior to being dismissed for gross misconduct.  Her lack of transparency did not, however, extend to disclosure to the ICAEW.  The Disciplinary Committee of the ICAEW took in to account the fact that she had self-reported the matter to ICAEW and had cooperated with the disciplinary investigation, which may have led to a less severe outcome than if she had not been open about her past.

Honesty and integrity go to the heart of what it means to be a professional.  In addition, most professional bodies place continuing obligations on their members to report any misconduct, including convictions, adverse findings or disqualifications.  Professionals should therefore be mindful of any issues in their business or personal life which have the potential to affect the public perception of their profession and the need to raise these issues in a timely and sensitive manner with their employer and professional body.  Taking advice on how best to communicate any past indiscretions can often lead to the most favourable outcome.

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