insight magazine

Ethics Engaged | Spring 2019

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 CFO, GigaOm

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 non-disclosure agreements.

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 teams. 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 agreements.

4. Explain to your employees the rationale for what they are doing and how their work impacts the company. When people 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.

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