Ethics under the Gun

By Cosette, Giles | CMA - the Management Accounting Magazine, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Ethics under the Gun


Cosette, Giles, CMA - the Management Accounting Magazine


As modern day "dark" forces conspire to challenge ethical behavior, Certified Management Accountants must stand together as models of integrity.

Last year in CMA, the 1992-93 chairman of The Society of Management Accountants of Canada, Fred Grant, expressed some very interesting opinions about professional ethics. Other contributors to CMA magazine have also dealt with this topic in recent issues.

I would like to offer my own contribution to this "brainstorming," because it seems that quite a few people are concerned about the general lack of ethics in our society. Indeed, a thorough examination of this highly delicate, albeit hazy, subject should be of interest to each and every one of us. The problem of ethics is also associated with the public's decreasing confidence in a wide number of veritable pillars of society: business leaders, politicians, medical practitioners, police officers, engineers, architects, and -- of course accountants.

Many are overwhelmed by the problem. Indeed, an infinite number of questions should be asked in an effort to clearly identify just what the problem is. For instance, can we be certain that the frequency of unethical behavior is really on the increase? Is the problem as old as time? Is it true that contemporary expectations about ethical behavior have changed? Are we simply more aware of each person's duties and responsibilities, and more critical of each other? Finally, without venturing an opinion as to the causes of the problem, what should we do to improve the general level of professional ethics within the accounting profession?

Ethics: an age-old problem

Society was very strict about a gentleman's behavior at the time Machiavelli wrote The Prince. For Machiavelli, it was eminently defendable and useful for the Prince to use deceit, terror, lies and any number of similar methods to grab power and to maintain it. It should be pointed out that Machiavelli based much of his advice on historical events which occurred before his time.

And, still today, the Machiavellian behavior of some senior officials is public knowledge. Do riches and power corrupt? How many of us are ready to do anything to obtain them?

Theft, lies, duplicity, fraud and pirating have existed since the dawn of man. Today, however, such behavior can take on more complex and more subtle forms. Major frauds have been carried out not only by taking advantage of the gullibility and good faith of misinformed victims, but also by eluding the vigilance of experienced professionals. Unethical behavior is often hard to detect clearly and promptly. Subtle ethical lapses often involve the transmittal of false or incomplete information.

Has the phenomenon increased?

The behavior of our "elites" is not always exemplary. The unenviable reputation of politicians is due to their countless broken promises, their incompetence in managing the public purse, and their frequent lapses into corruption. Famous businessmen have been implicated in fraudulent acts as a result of which people have lost their life's savings. Nary a day goes by without the press publishing a story undermining our faith in the ethical standards of the various professions which we like to call our "elites." For a number of observers, the problem has taken on unprecedented proportions.

Have models of integrity become a rare occurrence? Or do they simply receive too little publicity? Today, the media are obsessed with sensational headlines. Why should they be concerned with businesses and professionals of integrity, whose only wish is to provide satisfaction to their customers, to be respectful of their employees and suppliers, and generally to behave like upstanding citizens? Fortunately, such models do exist, as each of us is aware. They are, however, strangely absent from the attention of the media.

Still, the lack of ethics has become rather widespread and is not limited to prominent figures.

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