The opportunity is now for all leaders to lean into restoring public trust in corporate governance, as we begin to build back better in the wake of a series of corporate failings.
The global pandemic and our return to work presents an opportunity for organisations and leaders to re-establish a culture that is built on trust. It is vital for companies to build back better and stronger to face tomorrow’s challenges.
Corporate scandals have become super-sized in recent times, so it is little wonder that public trust has been lost in business. Scandals exist, so how can we, as individuals, avoid being party to the next one?
In 2015, ICAS launched its business ethics initiative: The Power of One. The Power of One calls on all Chartered Accountants (CAs) to place ethical leadership at the heart of their professional responsibilities, to shape the culture and values of their organisations, to help re-establish ethics at the core of business practices and to rebuild public trust in business. Since 2015, ICAS has published a series of publications, guidance and resources as part of The Power of One initiative. In 2020, to mark the fifth anniversary since the launch of The Power of One, ICAS issued second editions of The Power of One series of publications.
The COVID return to work creates a positive opportunity for organisations and business leaders to refresh how we all live and breathe. Referencing some of the themes of The Power of One, here are the ICAS Ethics Board’s “seven golden ethical principles” to live by:
1. Be an ethical leader
This means having the courage to challenge others when necessary.
By living ethical principles and using them to guide our everyday actions and inspire others’ behaviour, we can be influential. CAs are required to adhere to the five fundamental ethics principles within the ICAS Code of Ethics: integrity; objectivity; professional competence and due care; confidentiality; and professional behaviour.
No matter what our role is, whether we are at the start of our career or on a Board of Directors, we should demonstrate ethical leadership that influences those around us.
2. Use moral courage
As business professionals we can be under great pressure to meet deadlines, garner good financial results or keep lucrative clients. People that do something wrong are not always inherently bad people – everyone is capable of acting differently when under pressure.
Making a stand against unethical behaviour can be even more difficult when others acquiesce to inappropriate conduct. The harsh reality is that if we suspect impropriety and do nothing, we can be found guilty of condoning it, and implicated in a scandal.
ICAS’ The Power of One publication ‘Moral Courage’ recognises that it takes real courage to stand up against unethical behaviour, sometimes at personal expense.
3. Consider personal and professional reputation
A professional’s reputation is his or her personal brand – it enables us to get jobs, build careers, win clients, influence change, and it is how we will be remembered.
All of us need to be aware of the potential reputational consequences of our individual actions, or indeed our inaction. Ultimately, unethical behaviour could lead to reputational ruin for us as individuals and for our organisations and bring discredit to our profession.
4. Set the right tone at the top
Board members, or higher levels of management, are the custodians of an organisation’s future and must establish an appropriate ‘tone at the top’ to ensure sustainability.
We must value colleagues. The adoption, promotion and embedding of a culture of fairness, including respect for values of equality, diversity and inclusion, is an important element of an effective ethical culture within an organisation.
Individuals within organisations must feel empowered and supported to ‘speak up’ so issues can be dealt with at the earliest opportunity before they escalate. Even more important is ensuring that concerns raised are properly listened to and appropriately investigated.
It is not only up to board members. ICAS’ ‘The CA and the organisation’ paper concludes that the fundamental ethics principles within the ICAS Code of Ethics generally align with organisational values; by championing these in our daily lives, all of us are in a strong position to assist organisations in living the ethical values to which they aspire.
5. Maintain an inquiring mindset
It is the inquiring mindset which allows you to question whether something seems reasonable. Have the correct assumptions been used? Is the information complete? Does this align with my expectations?
Ethical dilemmas may start off as innocuous and immaterial, but snowball into an issue. Problems need to be nipped in the bud to avoid escalation beyond our control.
6. Consider the public interest
The ‘reasonable and informed third party test’ in the ICAS Code of Ethics is a helpful benchmark. Ultimately, it is about how our actions could be viewed by others, and giving consideration as to whether we ‘should’ do something, as opposed to whether we ‘could’ do something.
What would an objective, reasonable and informed third party conclude? If they would conclude that a course of action is inappropriate, don’t do it, don’t condone it, and have the moral courage to do something about it.
7. Consider ‘the right, the good and the virtuous’ actions
With their unique vantage point across business operations, CAs are well placed to identify and challenge unethical decisions and behaviours.
ICAS’ guidance paper ‘The Ethical Journey – The Right, the Good and the Virtuous’ guides the ethical decision-making process:
“Ethics includes the consideration of the right, the good, and the virtuous actions to take in a particular circumstance, reaching a judgement, and having the resolve and courage to act accordingly.”
Pause for thought and reflect, to broaden your perspective when facing an ethical decision, and challenge or influence the behaviour of others.
In so doing, help restore the trust lost in business in recent years.