Boosting Ethical AwarenessBy
Students who consider principles and standards will better embody ethics when encountering ethical issues as professionals.
Teaching accounting at the university level, I aspire to convey to my students an understanding of how abstract ethical principles and standards should translate into real-world ethical conduct in the workplace. To that end, I administer a simple survey to my MBA students regarding the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice. The goal is to lead students to critically assess the principles of honesty, fairness, objectivity, and responsibility and the connected standards of competence, confidentiality, integrity, and credibility described within the Statement. This enables them to seriously consider the meaning of these principles and standards and their applicability to the workplace. A qualitative assessment of the ratings and brief narrative comments I’ve gathered from about 250 University of Denver students in nine sections of an introductory managerial accounting course that I’ve taught over the last 10 years show that exposing students and early-career professionals to the Statement can enhance their awareness and understanding of ethical issues.
The survey is included in the first homework assignment, which requires students to read the IMA Statement and rate their level of agreement with simple statements. Its purpose is threefold. The first objective is to teach students that professional ethics isn’t—or shouldn’t be—an afterthought in the practice of management accounting but instead is at the forefront of any issue or situation.
The second goal is to foster ethical awareness in students and junior business professionals by asking them to reflect on how they perceive the Statement’s principles and standards. Becoming aware of perceptions of ethics is a crucial element for promoting ethical behaviors in ourselves and others. The exercise implicitly requires students to think about the usefulness of ethical principles and standards and explicitly enables teachers to emphasize their relevance to professional settings and applicability to workplace situations.
Third, the survey indirectly raises aware-ness of the resources related to ethics that IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) makes available to all accounting and finance professionals, including the Ethics Center and Ethics Helpline.
The survey asks students to rate their level of agreement with the following:
- I believe the Statement communicates ethical responsibilities very effectively.
- I believe it covers the most important aspects of ethical professional practice.
- I believe the Statement can help professionals to solve ethical dilemmas.
- I believe it’s too broad.
- I believe it’s too weak.
- I believe other ethical standards should be included in the Statement.
- Other professions have more effective statements of ethical practice.
Three-quarters (75%) of the respondents agree or strongly agree that the IMA Statement communicates ethical responsibilities very effectively (item 1) and covers the most important aspects of ethical profession practice (item 2). These results document important qualities of the IMA Statement: Its principles and standards are clear, and they sustain ethical awareness and prioritization of professional ethics. One respondent noted, “The organization of the statement is clear and concise, which helps it communicate effectively. By separating out the four main standards (competence, confidentiality, integrity, and credibility), it becomes an easy reference tool for professionals. It’s written in a way that it can be applied to any business.”
Fewer than half (43%) of respondents agree that the IMA Statement can help professionals solve ethical dilemmas (item 3). Responses are split between those who agree and those who disagree (33%) that the Statement is too broad (item 4) and too weak (item 5), while one-quarter (25%) of the respondents are neutral.
These results shouldn’t be interpreted as a validity test of the Statement given the limited experience of the MBA students. Rather, the survey results can be explained in light of the purpose of the Statement, which is to provide general principles and standards that can be applied to a variety of situations in accounting and finance. Therefore, the results simply underscore that the Statement isn’t intended to be a substitute for contingent, specific policies that organizations should develop to codify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors consistent with their core values and culture.
Moreover, the wider dispersion of ratings on items 3, 4, and 5 suggests that applying ethics is far from straightforward. One respondent wisely noted, “I believe the Statement empowers professionals and gives IMA members a basic guideline for resolving ethical dilemmas. But there is no statement that will solve each and every ethical dilemma that professionals will face. What solves ethical dilemmas are experience, knowledge, and personal character.” In this sense, the IMA Statement represents an important compass that can guide the development of codes of conduct that address various contingencies within specific organizations.
Similarly, there’s no clear consensus among respondents on whether other ethical standards should be included in the IMA Statement (item 6) and whether other professions have more effective statements of ethical practice (item 7). These results also may be partially attributed to students’ minimal professional experience. But the dispersion of ratings also shows that the IMA Statement isn’t perceived as significantly different from ethics statements in other disciplines. This is notable since teaching ethics has become more prevalent in many business disciplines. Hence, if read in combination with the high level of agreement with items 1 and 2, the survey results further confirm that the IMA Statement helps boost ethical awareness and shape adherence to professional ethics.
The experience of administering the survey in a classroom setting suggests that a similar exercise of reading and commenting on the IMA Statement can be helpful in workplace settings to help management accounting professionals expand their ethical awareness. The results of the survey reveal that the Statement provides a useful tool to foster ethical awareness rooted in principles and standards. It represents a solid foundation that may require more detailed codes of conduct to articulate desirable and undesirable behaviors in a range of circumstances. Asking accounting and finance students and professionals alike to read it and reflect on it educates them on the importance of ethics. The use of the Statement for educational purposes could include applications to hypothetical and real situations to further enhance students’ and professionals’ ability to recognize and resolve ethical issues.