Leaders of accounting firms may view the ethical environment differently from their staff members, according to a new study.

The study tests some potential reasons why firm leaders and non-leaders or professional staff may have varying perspectives on the firm’s ethical environment, and also found that even those in leadership positions may benefit from mentoring.

The researchers used a questionnaire that was filled out by 139 accounting professionals employed at CPA firms. The study, co-authored by co-authored by Amy Hageman, an assistant professor of accounting at Kansas State University, along with Donna Bobek of the University of Central Florida and Robin Radtke of Clemson University, will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Business Ethics focusing on accounting ethics and tone at the top.

In previous studies, Hageman and her fellow researchers demonstrated that leaders and non-leaders at public accounting firms have different perceptions of their firms. They found that while most accounting professionals perceive the ethical environment of their firm as quite strong, the partners, principals and directors of the firm perceive the ethical environment as even stronger than the other staffers.

The major finding in the most recent study was why this difference arises. “We found that when non-leader accounting professionals believe they participate in shaping and maintaining the ethical environment and/or have a strong organizational fit with the accounting firm, they are more likely to view the ethical environment as strong and to view it similarly to firm leaders,” Hageman said in a statement.

Because non-leader accounting professionals would include recent college graduates, Hageman said the research shows the importance of students taking business ethics courses, which Kansas State University’s College of Business Administration offers.

“If ethics education were absent from the college curriculum, it could severely impact the ability of these non-leaders to be aware of the importance of ethics in accounting and business,” she said. “We believe that it is critical for soon-to-be-graduates who are weighing various job options to carefully consider firm leadership and their perceptions of the overall ethical environment and culture of the firm, as ‘tone at the top’ has been shown to be a critical factor in firms’ ethical attitudes.”

Hageman said other studies by the research team have found that a firm’s ethical environment has an important influence on ethical decision-making. The same person placed in a different environment may make a very different decision based on his or her perceptions of what constitutes ethical behavior within the organization.

“It is very important for anyone thinking of joining an organization to make sure that it has strong ethical values and the leadership within the firm acts ethically and supports organization efforts to encourage ethical behavior,” she said.

The study also found that it is important for firm leaders to receive mentoring. While firm leaders were much less likely to have received formal or informal mentoring in the previous year, Hageman said having received such mentoring was related to how leaders perceived their firms’ ethical environment.

“On the other hand, non-leaders were more likely to have received mentoring, but it was not related to their perceptions of the firm's ethical environment,” she said. “This emphasizes the importance of firm leaders continuing to receive mentoring throughout their career. We may not think of someone who is a leader in an organization as needing a mentor, but our results showed that leaders who continued to receive such support had a more positive view of the firm's ethical environment.”

The study is part of a stream of research that Hageman, Bobek and Radtke are undertaking on the ethical decision-making of accounting professionals and the importance of a firm’s ethical environment.