A spotlight on ethics

Helen Brand
Olympics Day 8 - Boxing
More than 50 per cent of workers in the UK and Ireland do not believe their employer is committed to ethical behaviour (Source: Getty)

Yesterday was Global Ethics Day, organised by the Carnegie Council.

Now, 10 years on from the start of the global financial crisis, there has never been a more important time for those in business to consider the role of professional ethics.

A decade later, economies, communities and individuals around the world are still living with the effects of 2007/08. This Global Ethics Day therefore marks an important date for business leaders’ attempts to win back that trust.

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They should not underestimate the scale of that challenge. A new survey commissioned by ACCA has revealed that more than 50 per cent of workers in the UK and Ireland do not believe their employer is committed to ethical behaviour.

Of even greater concern, a quarter reported they had been “put under pressure” to act unethically in the workplace. Nearly half said they would turn a blind eye to the ethical misconduct of others.

Public scepticism around a commitment to business ethics is understandable, and perhaps deserved. Complacency over its importance in the workplace is not. A failure to uphold ethical standards, whether by individuals or organisations, undermines the ability of business to operate freely – at home and across borders.

Hard lessons have been learned in boardrooms since the crisis. “Ethics and Trust In A Digital Age”, a recent global ACCA study of 10,000 professional accountants and business leaders, found a concern for ethics grows as individuals become more senior.

Yet the public rightly expects professionals to not just learn from previous mistakes, but to show leadership in anticipating future problems. Just as the previous crisis emerged from unexpected and under-scrutinised areas of the economy, so technological innovation brings new potential risks.

Cyber security attacks on organisations as diverse as the NHS, Equifax and Deloitte highlight eternal vigilance to protect individuals’ data. The rise of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain offer new models of doing business and delivering public services.

Yet they also demand new responses to ensure such technology is not used as a cover for the shadow economy and unregulated and potentially risky activity. Businesses need to be able to ensure that payments accepted in bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies meet their requirements under anti-money laundering legislation, for example.

Education has an important role to play. ACCA this month unveils a new Ethics and Professional Skills module, which will rigorously assess students on their ability to demonstrate a best practice and principle-based approach to the ethical dilemmas they will face in their careers.

A decade ago, ACCA was the only professional body to launch a compulsory ethics module as part of its qualification. That innovation was informed by an understanding of how the ethical requirements and expectations of professional accountants were changing in the twenty-first century.

Already, the rapid changes in global business require a growing list of professional skills. Digital fluency and emotional intelligence are just two examples of areas where accountants are expected to excel, beyond their technical expertise.

Yet ethical behaviour does not merely sit alongside these skills: they are an integral part of all-round professional excellence for a changing world.

In the age of the startup and entrepreneur, professional accountants have a particularly important role. For small businesses, they are often the only individual in the organisation whose professional membership depends on their adherence to a code of conduct and ability to display strong ethical judgement.

For those in large organisations, it is vital that individuals possess the confidence and insight to uphold standards across highly complex structures and supply chains.

While we need to ensure an “ethics begins with me” approach is embedded and future-proofed, ethics must also be a whole business concern. Organisations need to play a leadership role in devising clear ethical guidance, and supporting effective “speak up” arrangements for whistle-blowers.

That is why ACCA is using Global Ethics Day to launch a wider conversation about the value of ethics. Ranging from a themed film festival in Singapore to a variety of events across the world, it is vital that those seeking to lead business understand the challenges faced and how to overcome them.

Ultimately, professional ethics is a matter of judgement.

In the age of automation and algorithm, these judgements will become more important to what it means to be a professional.

To rebuild trust, both those at the top and those entering professions should demonstrate their commitment to showing that doing the right thing also means doing better business.

Read more: Four in 10 consumers say they have abandoned brands for being unethical

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