Professionals in many sectors are trusted by their clients and the public to commit to a high standard of ethical behavior and a willingness to "do the right thing." There’s an expectation—quite rightly—that a strong ethical compass is a must-have for professionals.

Trust is intrinsically linked to ethical behavior. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global survey of trust and credibility, has revealed that people’s confidence has declined in society’s key institutions: governments, businesses, NGOs and the media.

The findings are a clear sign that tomorrow’s finance professionals face both challenges and opportunities as they attempt to rebuild public trust in business and institutions. Ethical behavior will be crucial as professionalism will matter more.

Ethics play a crucial role in everything that accountants do. Given the complexity of many financial transactions, aligned with the importance of best practice to business and society, professional bodies such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants have a particular responsibility to uphold and lead on ethical issues.

The ACCA Code of Ethics and Conduct—what we call the Code—is binding on all our members and students, as well as any partner or director in an ACCA practice. It’s based on the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants Code, and the fundamental principles that we set out are the same as IESBA’s.

So to stay vigilant about omissions, errors and deliberate accounting violations, all professional accountants will need to develop and balance necessary professional quotients to fit their role and stage of career. A key quotient is technical skills and ethics—what we call TEQ. These are the skills and abilities to perform activities consistently to a defined standard.

Finance professionals must think and behave with integrity, independence and professional skepticism. These must be demonstrable to stakeholders including regulators, investors, colleagues and entities that are the subject of audit and assurance engagements. For many accountants, because of the work they do, they act as the ethical custodians in their business. So what happens when someone needs to flag a problem and blow the whistle?

Speaking up with Confidence

In the global fight against unethical behavior, it’s important for potential whistleblowers to have a clear view of not only the avenues available for speaking up, but also the path ahead of them as they go through the whistleblowing journey.

This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also best for business. If employees feel that wrongdoing and unethical behavior will be dealt with promptly, fairly and in a transparent manner, they are far less likely to make the issue a public one.

Now more than ever, how an organization does business is just as important as the results it achieves. It’s no secret that many of the great reputational disasters of recent years have been made worse by attempts to sweep them under the rug. If effective speak-up arrangements are implemented throughout corporate governance, public sector accountability and professional responsibility, they will create robust risk management, which is in an organization’s highest interest.

Training for an Ethical and Professional Stance

ACCA has long championed the importance of ethics as part of being a professional accountant.

We were the first to introduce a compulsory ethics module in 2007. And our new Ethics and Professional Skills Module focuses on developing vitally important ethical behavior and judgement to ensure finance professionals are equipped with the skills needed for their future success.

The module looks at leadership, negotiation, conflict management, thinking commercially and skepticism development, all integrated with realistic business situations to get the participant really thinking about ethical and professional dilemmas.

It’s our belief that ethics has a place in the real world. Yes, there’s a wealth of philosophical, religious and academic theory about ethics, but we are all aware of the realities when unethical behavior is unchallenged. We lose trust, and reputations are damaged.

As to where our own ethical compass points, the choice is ours—but our module will help the professional accountants of tomorrow maintain the highest ethical and professional standards wherever they are in the real world.

Warner Johnston

Warner Johnston

Warner Johnston serves as the CEO of the USA for the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.