Once while giving a keynote presentation, I had just begun the portion dealing with Sarbanes-Oxley when an audience member queried me on why there were still a humbling roster of audit firms becoming embroiled in accounting scandals.
I thought about it for a second and then asked the attendee if there happened to be a story in his morning paper about a murder, kidnapping or a bank robbery.
He replied that there were, in fact, several.
So I told him that as far as I knew there were laws on the books prohibiting homicide, kidnapping and robbery, yet all three tragically continue to occur on a regular basis. Therefore, why should a sweeping corporate reform act serve to deter those who aren't inclined to abide by laws anyway?
I guess I made my point, as unfortunate as it was.
But that doesn't mean the profession should throw up its hands and chalk up any future debacles to human nature.
And at least two from academia are not.
A pair of accounting professors from Kansas State University have called for national support to new guidelines from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy calling for better education in ethics.
KSU faculty members Dann Fisher and Diane Swanson are trying to garner support of the proposed NASBA rule, which they maintain would effectively mandate a new curriculum for accounting degree programs.
NASBA's proposal would require three hours of accounting ethics coursework and three hours of business ethics coursework as a condition of sitting for the CPA Exam.
Swanson, an associate professor of management, said they had suggested specific changes in the accounting curriculum in order to "help avoid the lapses in moral judgment that we've witnessed with Arthur Andersen."
Sadly, but somehow not surprisingly, they encountered resistance to the idea of actually requiring ethics, from those taking umbrage at the suggestion that it's not an innate quality.
Currently, 34 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, require ethics coursework in continuing education -- while, ironically, many university accounting degree programs do not.
While recent graduates in accounting may have correctly tutored on the technical aspects of accounting, most are too green to spot, and subsequently solve, anything resembling an ethical dilemma.
And if history serves as any barometer, a newbie auditor's initial exposure to an ethical challenge will be akin to a teenager being offered cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. You aren't sure of when it will happen, only that it will.
In truth, mandating ethics education to complement an accounting course load may not prevent the next Arthur Andersen-like implosion.
But its still light years better than the alternative -- complacency.
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