Organizational Influences on Approaches to Ethical Decisions by Professionals: The Case of Public Accountants

By Hugh P Gunz; Sally P Gunz; John C McCutcheon | Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Organizational Influences on Approaches to Ethical Decisions by Professionals: The Case of Public Accountants


Hugh P Gunz; Sally P Gunz; John C McCutcheon, Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences


Abstract

If professionals are governed by the rules of their professional bodies, their response to ethical dilemmas should be unaffected by whether they are sole practitioners or employees of large firms. A small sample of accountants was asked to comment on a set of ethical dilemmas; the findings suggest differences in adviceseeking behaviour based on the size of their firms, and raise questions about the applicability of the classical model of the professions to large professional firms.

Resume

Si les professionnels sont regis par les regles de fears organisations professionnels, fears reponses aux dilemmes ethiques ne devraient pas differees s'ils sont les praticiens independants ou les employes des grandes entreprises. On a demand a certains comptables canadiens de faire des commentaires au sujet d'une liste de dilemmes ethiques; les resultats ont suggere que les comptables dans les entreprises de grandeurs differents ont des comportements differents envers les demandes de conseils. Les questions ont ere creees au sujet de Vapplicabilite du modele classique des professions aux grandes entreprises professionnels.

The professions occupy a particular position of trust in Western societies. In return for providing services that depend on skills and expertise beyond the abilities of the general public, they are ceded a high degree of autonomy, often amounting to a monopoly, over the training, certification and control of their members (Becker, 1962; Collins, 1975; Johnson, 1972; Saks, 1983). These monopolies are often protected by legislation so that, for example, only qualified physicians may be licensed to prescribe certain restricted drugs, and only lawyers who have been called to the bar may be able to represent clients in court. One of the control mechanisms which helps to reassure patients (and society in general) of the trustworthiness of their doctors, or clients of the trustworthiness of their lawyers, is an ethical code of conduct governing the behaviour of the profession's members. Indeed it is often argued that such a code is a distinguishing feature of a "true" profession (e.g. Ward, Ward, & Deck, 1993), although it has been pointed out that there is no consensus on what constitutes the set of distinguishing features (Johnson, 1972). Indeed, it often seems as if professions are the occupation of last resort, that is, the group on whom clients can ultimately rely, when ethical behaviour is needed. The legal profession, for example, is entrusted with handling disputes that have got beyond the capacities of the parties themselves to resolve, and with dispensing sanctions for behaviour society defines as unacceptable. In this article we shall focus on one particular professional group, professional public accountants, who are relied on inter alia to report to stockholders on the compliance of corporations' financial statements with certain standards and rules.

When faced with a situation requiring ethical judgement, professionals are expected to make a determination based on the dictates of their profession's ethical code, and it is this that reassures their clients in particular and society in general that total group needs are being maximized (Bollom, 1988; Likierman, 1989). So, for example, in the case of public accountants in Western economies, the audit function is typically governed by complex rules developed by their professional- bodies within a framework of laws and regulations laid down by governments and the many regulatory bodies responsible for administering the commercial world. The assumption is that a professionally certified public accountant will apply the same standards when auditing the books of a company, regardless of whether the accountant is a sole practitioner or an audit senior from a "big five" accounting firm:

...as a professional man [sic], a member must at all times perform his work objectively and impartially and free from influence by any consideration which might appear to be in conflict with this requirement. …

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