Ethical misconduct has received widespread attention during the last two decades. When business and society have become more concerned with business ethics the urge for higher education to become involved in teaching ethics has been expressed. Several of the attempts to accomplish effective accounting ethics education have been documented in research (Armstrong & Mintz, 1989; Welton et al., 1994; Earley & Kelley, 2004; Dellaportas, 2006). However, a recent investigation of accounting literature indicated that there is a great need to expand the ethical content of accounting education (Sikka et al., 2007). Furthermore, some studies have indicated that business and economics education may even be the cause of poor moral reasoning (Armstrong, 1987; Ponemon & Glazer, 1990; Jeffrey, 1993).
The findings that indentified accounting education as a possible source of unethical behavior are supported by the argument that self-interest has become a social norm (Ferraro et al., 2005). Self-interest is not only an assumption of the thinking that underlies most economically founded education but has become the ruler according to which rational behavior in the business world is gauged. Students acquiring their first professional position who have learnt to expect that people expect self-interested behavior of each other tend to believe that their environment will expect such behavior of them. Students feel the pressure to display a behavior compatible with these rational norms and thus would be reluctant to display altruistic behaviors. The students would also be reluctant to display ethical behavior because it could be incompatible with the self-interest norm. In this sense the business world could be interpreted as a subculture dictated by the self-interest paradigm, surrounded by the rest of the world in which a broader set of ethical values still dominate.
How can ideas of altruism and care for others balance the self-interest message? While the main part of previous accounting ethics research has been devoted to moral development, the present study concerns two other phenomena. This research concerns (1) students' professional identities as accountants and (2) students' beliefs about their future job roles as accountants. If it can be demonstrated that these factors are related to students' morality they may offer means of increasing the moral standard of graduating accounting students, compared with the relatively inert moral development.
The present research suggests that professional identity could be a suitable candidate to become a variable that education can influence with the purpose to improve the moral strength of graduates from universities. Previous research has successfully demonstrated how socially acquired identities affect for example work motivation and that identities can be modified through leadership. In a pioneer study Bamber and Iyer (2007) demonstrated a relationship between the degree of identification with a client and the auditors' acquiescence to a client preferred position concerning an accounting issue. The Bamber and Iyer study demonstrated the applicability of the social identity perspective on accounting ethics and initially inspired the present study.
Thus, the current research is devoted to accounting students with two purposes. The study is an attempt to find evidence for how (1) the strength of professional identity and (2) expectations of the future job role relates to morality, represented as guilt reactions, among accounting students. While Bamber and Iyer (2007) focused on a conflict between organizational identity and professional identity, this research concerns a possible conflict between professional identity and expectations held by students of a future job role as accountant. It relates to previous research on attitudes and expectations of accountants, but extends that research by its focus on how certain beliefs about the future job role are related to guilt reactions. This study differs from previous accounting ethics research by its choice of guilt as dependent variable. Guilt is adopted in this research as a proxy for the intensity of moral reaction.
3. LITERATURE REVIEW
3.1 Identity and expectations in accounting ethics studies
3.1.1 Professional identity and the motivation for moral accounting
The first enquiry of this research is whether there is a relationship between the strength of professional identity of accounting students and their perceived guilt. Bamber and Iyer (2007) found that client identification was negatively related to auditors' independent opinions, and that a conflict between identities could explain the effect. Similarly, the extent that accountants identify with their profession would be positively related to their ability to express independent opinions when under pressure from clients. There is reason to expect a positive relationship between the strength of professional identity and the desire to choose moral accounting alternatives.
The following discussion of previous research is primarily concerned with research that presents evidence of relationships between identity and moral intent. In the accounting context there are to date no studies that explicitly concern both moral motivation and self-conception, but studies that concern closely related areas have been conducted lately.
Among the research in accounting ethics and closely related areas, two types of studies appear relevant as background for this study. First, there are studies of how moral virtues affect moral behavior and second there is research on professional commitment or professional identity and aspects of morality.
The virtue ethics approach addresses how character traits that are descriptive of individual/personal level self affect various stages of moral decision-making. The relatively stable character traits that are discussed as moral virtues are core self-conceptions that affect intent and behavior (Pincoffs, 1986; Thorne, 1998; Armstrong, 2003). However, they are different from the more labile knowledge structures that are the individuals' representations of social identities such as 'professional identity' or 'identity as employee'. As will be further described below, social identities also consist of traits but are less deeply psychologically rooted and tied to a social entity, i.e. the profession or an organization. The meaning of professional identity for any accountant would be defined by how the profession is perceived in social interaction, and the meaning may change whenever the profession is subject of communication.
A few studies may be regarded as applications of a social identity approach to accounting ethics: Jeffrey and Weatherholt (1996) touched upon the possibility of adopting a self and identity framework when they found a strong relationship between professional commitment and rule observance attitudes among accountants. The reason for the relevance of professional identity in their research and an argument that could have been advanced by them is that professional commitment is closely related to the strength of the professional identity (Van Knippenberg et al., 2004).
More explicit evidence for the effect of professional identity, and a more direct application of a social identity approach to accounting ethics, on the propensity to adopt a behavior that is in conflict with professional obligations when there is client pressure, was reported by Bamber & Iyer (2007). They found a positive relationship between the degree of identification with a client company and the auditors' acquiescence to the client preferred position concerning accounting issues. Their study was conceptualized as a case of organization-profession conflict. The organization-profession conflict is referring to the competing impacts on motivation from the person's identification with his/her profession and his/her identification with a particular organization such as a client or employer. This branch of research is well developed and a similar effect has for example been demonstrated recently for corporate lawyers (Gunz & Gunz, 2007). These studies have measured the extent that the auditor or lawyer perceives him/her-self to be a member of an organization (client or employer), and identifies with the organization. Organizational identification has been demonstrated as generating a tendency towards pro-organizational judgment and professional identification has been conceptualized as a counteracting force.
As noted above, previous research has predominantly concerned ethical judgment and has by comparison less frequently included ethical intent or actual behavior as 'dependent variable'. In the present study perceived guilt is adopted as a signal of the contribution to volition from the moral aspect of a person's confrontation with a situation. In this respect the current study is related to research on moral intent, the establishment of volition as a result of a combination of selfish and unselfish motivations. The relative lack of research on moral intent has been noted by several scholars (c.f. Armstrong et al., 2003). The current study relates to previous research because it builds on the Rest (1986) model and thus contributes to a large amount of studies that has adopted the four components model as explanation of ethical behavior. It extends Bamber & Iyer (2007) by explicitly attempting to relate professional identity and guilt. Furthermore, previous research, including Bamber & Iyer (2007), has frequently studied professional auditors and their current professional roles and their relationships with morality, but the current study researches the perceived future professional roles. Students have typically not developed professional identities in the same sense as practicing accountants because they have not yet begun their career in the profession. A relationship between the strength of future professional identity and guilt or between students' beliefs about necessary deviations from professional obligations in a future job role and guilt would be an indication of how the new recruits to the business can be affected by professional identity or beliefs about the future job role.
3.1.2 Expectations of the job role and motivation for moral …