How to Elevate Ethics in Accounting and Finance
Young professionals — and their employers — have a responsibility to set a high bar for ethical behavior.
Elizabeth Pittelkow Kittner, CPA
Head of Finance, International Legal Technology Association (ILTA)
When you start a new job at a new organization, or change departments within your current
company, your instinctual response to want to fit into the group takes over. This reaction is
evolutionary, and it is rooted in our yearning to survive and flourish. Young professionals
and new recruits are especially susceptible to wanting to fit in because of their desires to
make good impressions on employers at the start of their careers.
While college curriculums are increasingly exposing students to more ethics education,
young professionals still largely figure out the application of business ethics while on the
job. Instead of trying to fit in, young professionals need to be encouraged and feel
empowered to ask questions with confidence and without fear when something looks
unfamiliar to them. The accounting and finance profession is based on integrity, and we
need to work together toward creating and maintaining healthy work environments,
regardless of rank or tenure.
So, here are some tips for both young professionals and their employers on how to elevate
ethics in the accounting and finance profession.
If you are a young professional, here is some advice for you:
1. Know who you are and what you stand for personally.
If you find yourself caught up in
something questionable or unethical early in your career, it can damage your reputation
and stay with you for decades. Be careful not to become a scapegoat for others’
behavior who may try to shift blame to you. Being young or less experienced are not
excuses for acting unethically.
2. Determine who you can talk to in the company when something does not feel right.
Perhaps it is a colleague or someone from HR. Find out if there is an anonymous way to
provide feedback and use it if necessary. Find someone outside of the company you
can talk to, as well.
3. Enter into mentoring relationships.
Mentorship programs and groups exist through
organizations like the AICPA, Illinois CPA Society, and other state CPA societies and
professional organizations. Many of these programs include structured mentoring with
4. Ask questions!
In the fledgling part of your career, you are learning how to do your job
well, and you should develop a habit of seeking to understand why you are asked to
complete a task and how it fits in to the overall goals of the company. If you do not like
a reason, consider if you should be doing it. For example, perhaps your colleague asks you to book a journal entry without giving you an explanation.
Why do you feel uncomfortable? You do not know the reason
for the journal entry and find it suspicious; your reputation is on
the line. Talk to people about the situation that bothers you, and
do not do anything you are uncomfortable doing. While this
sentence sounds easy, it is arduous in practice. Your colleague
may be telling you to book a journal entry without giving you a
reason because that colleague is rushed. However, it could also
be because that colleague is hiding something. You will not
know until you review evidence or do some research.
5. Learn more about business ethics.
Take classes, read articles,
and talk to colleagues. The more you can learn about the types
of ethical dilemmas that exist, the better equipped you will be to
deal with them. The AICPA’s Code of Conduct is an excellent
resource for you.
If you are an employer of young professionals, please consider the
following to help promote an ethical environment:
1. Talk about ethics in your new hire training and then reinforce
your focus on ethics in ongoing company meetings with your
Enforce a zero-tolerance policy for people who cheat the
company and impose disciplinary actions upon people who
disrespect others. Train managers about ethics and open the
dialogue for what is appropriate versus not appropriate around
policies and behaviors.
2. Provide anonymous ways for people to report when they feel
something is not right
, and then ensure you address feedback
either in a company meeting or with a response back to the
person sent through a system where the responder does not
see the person who reported it.
3. Consider providing mentors to your new hires to offer another
outlet for decision-making discussions.
Encourage your young
professionals to be involved in mentoring outside of the
organization, too, because it will give them more diverse
perspectives and other opportunities to discuss the issues they
may face. Ensure that outside mentorship occurs with nondisclosure
4. Explain to your employees the rationale for what they are doing
and how their work impacts the company.
understand the why of what they do, they do their jobs better.
When people hear explanations such as, “I do not care how you
do it, just get it done” or “It is just the way things are done here,”
they question the integrity of what they are doing.
5. Create an environment where it is okay to be wrong if intentions
are not wrong.
When people feel they cannot ever fail at
anything in a role, they are more likely to act unethically to “get
it done” or cover it up than to admit their mistakes, learn from
them, and move on to more productive behaviors.
Consumers in our increasingly socially conscious marketplace, as
well as young professionals entering the workforce, are demanding
more integrity from the companies they work for and support. This
mindset should be incentive enough for organizations to be more
mindful of their ethical practices and more transparent with their
operations. As protectors of the public good, CPAs and other
accounting and finance professionals are in a unique position to drive
companies toward establishing better environments for integrity.