It's Time for the Super-Heroes of Ethical Behavior and the Public Trust to Help Save the World.
By Donny C. Shimamoto, CPA.CITP, CGMA
It seems like every day there is either news of a new scandal or additional “discoveries” about an on-going scandal. It’s quite depressing.
I finally took a step back to ask myself: “Why is this happening? Are we just doomed to a world that is just becoming more and more corrupt? Or is there something that can be done to stop this degeneration of society?”
Are Accountants Natively Ethical?
As I pondered how to solve the corruption problem, I asked myself, “how do we get more people to behave more ethically—more like us accountants?”
This then caused me to ask…
- What is it that makes accountants more ethical?
- Is it something that is inborn in us?
- Does being an accountant make us more ethical?
- Or is it an inborn belief in ethical behavior that makes accounting attractive to us?
In my experience, it is the latter that is true. I know that growing up, I believed in justice and doing what’s right. When I was looking for a career, it was the CPA’s independence and objectivity that resonated strongly with me. It paired with my desire to truly help people and resulted in my choosing a career as an accountant. (See “Accounting Services Aren’t What You Think They Are” for the true services I believe accountants provide to people.)
From discussions with my accountant colleagues, I believe that many of us have the native desire to do what is ethical, and we are willing to put the needs of others above our own to do what is right for the greater good, rather than personal gain. The accounting profession feels so strongly about this, it’s written into our codes of conduct and defined further in our professional standards. See the AICPA Code of Conduct, IIA Code of Ethics, AGA Code of Ethics, and the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice as just a few examples.
Going Beyond Professional Ethics to a Duty to the Public
This duty to the greater good (the “public”) is a key differentiator of accountants from other learned professionals. A doctor's key duty is to “do no harm” and to the well-being of their patients. But there is nothing that stops them from making decisions that have personal gain involved—the courting of physicians and incentives provided by the pharmaceutical industry are a prime example of this conflict of interest.
Lawyers’ key duty is to their client, or, when a judge, to the law itself. There are many examples where you can see how the outcome of a court case benefited a client but has had negative repercussions on the public. Or where a judge doesn’t fundamentally agree with a ruling but must make the ruling because of the way a law is written.
Only accountants, and particularly CPAs, are empowered by our duty to the public and we must put the public above our personal and even our employer’s benefit.
It’s the reason why even though external auditors are hired by an organization’s management, that auditors may still report issues with internal controls or the financials themselves—so that the public and other stakeholders don’t invest in a company that is not fairly presenting their financial position.
It’s the reason why CPA tax professionals won’t help clients circumvent the law, but rather only pay what’s rightfully due under the tax code.
And it’s why advisory-focused CPAs like myself evaluate our clients’ integrity before agreeing to help them, and why we also monitor the ethical behavior and decision-making process of clients while we’re working with them and have processes in place to disengage from a client if we perceive a significant issue with a client’s integrity.
(Re-)Introducing the CPA Credo
The strength of conviction of CPAs in this duty to the public is perhaps best represented by the “CPA Credo” introduced by Eli Mason in the late 1900s. Eli Mason’s “CPA Credo” charges CPAs (excerpt from The CPA Journal, November 2001):
To serve the public from whom my authority is derived
To serve my profession and contribute to its institutions
To practice at the highest professional level
To maintain an ethical posture characteristic of a learned profession
To maintain my ethical skills so that the public is served with competence
To maintain a state of independence at all times so that decisions are reached with objectivity
To work with my colleagues—for the practice of a profession is an experience in human behavior and mutual respect.
Reading the credo gave me chills because it resonated with my soul. Yes, this is what I do as a CPA!
Expanding the Ethical Influence of Accountants
While the CPA Credo was written specifically for CPAs, because CPA is often the starting point of a career in accounting, I believe the influence of the credo is carried throughout the profession, including in management accounting and internal audit. Check out the links above to the various codes of conduct and you’ll see where accounting professionals in various roles in the profession and in different industries are effective charged with upholding core tenets similar to those described in the credo.
So how do we solve the problem of ethical lapses in our world?
- First, as accountants, we need to continue to hold ourselves to a high standard of ethical conduct.
- Second, we need to use our trusted position in the organizations that we serve, to ensure that better, balanced decisions are made (management accountants), and that we are protecting an organization’s stakeholders and the public from fraud and abuse (internal and external auditors).
There are mature frameworks like the Balanced Scorecard that can be used to help ensure that internal decisions consider more than just the financial profit of an organization’s operations and projects. There are also emerging decision-making frameworks like Conscious Capitalism, which brings in the criteria of “elevating humanity” which is somewhat analogous to the accountant’s duty to the public. Frameworks like these rely upon the measurement of non-financial metrics and consideration of qualitative factors in decision-making and business reporting—things that leverage core accountant competencies.
Accountants can lead their organizations through the adoption of these frameworks. Accountants leverage our professional skepticism and judgment to ensure that estimates presented during planning are reasonable. Accountants also apply our expertise in internal controls and data quality to provide “assurance” that the data being used to populate the scorecard or measure the impacts of a decision fairly represents the aspects being measured. This is how accountants expand our ethical influence and embed balanced and ethical decision-making into the organizations that we serve.
Using Our Accountant Superpowers to Improve the World
We, accountants, must take our duty to the public seriously.
It can be easy to give in to the temptation of personal gain—and as a trusted professional, it can be easy to “slip one by” a client or colleague who trusts us to provide objective advice—but we always take the high road.
That’s why I like to think of ethical behavior as one of our accountant superpowers.
While mere humans may be easily tempted, our exceptionally strong will and commitment to ethical behavior ensures that we do the right thing—and also that we influence others to also do the right thing by holding them accountable for ethical decision-making. So our superpower not only gives us a “will of ethical steel,” but also enables us to affect others and cause them to act ethically.
We can truly help reduce the problems of the world if we apply these superpowers to the organizations we serve, embrace our duty to the public, and uphold the CPA Credo.
Are you hiding your superpowers away? Or are you truly having a positive impact and using your superpowers for the greater good?