Gray Areas in Accounting

November 8, 2010 BY danariely

Every profession is bound by written and unwritten rules and policies; some of them are set by organizations while others are an integral part of the occupation you choose. For example, doctors have to swear by the Hippocratic Oath, lawyers cannot divulge any privileged attorney-client conversations, and priests cannot reveal what was said to them in the confessional. The same kind of ethical code exists in the profession of accountancy because it is a means of public service. As Robert H. Montgomery put it, Accountants and the accountancy profession exist as a means of public service; the distinction which separates a profession from a mere means of livelihood is that the profession is accountable to standards of the public interest, and beyond the compensation paid by clients.”

However, accountants are plagued by deep ethical dilemmas – there may be times when their employers ask them to twist and tweak the financial position of the company because they’ve had a bad year. The usual spiel given is that they’re definitely going to rake in the profits in the months that follow and that the deficits that have been covered up this year will more than be taken care of in the years to come. So the accountant is left wondering if he/she should be loyal to their professional ethics or show loyalty to the company that has hired them.

To overcome this type of problems, ethics is taught as a subject when you choose to study accountancy, because you are responsible not just to your employer, but also to the general public who believe in your reports and statements and take important decisions based on your word. An important question here if course is how effective are ethics classes, and even if they are successful how long would their influence last (a week? a month? a year? 2 years?).  It is hard to believe that taking one or two classes on ethnics while studying accountancy is going to have a long term effect, and most likely higher standards and more strict definitions of continuing are needed (and maybe also higher frequency of education).

In other cases accountants are torn between reporting misbehaviors that are going on and between minding their own business – should they open up a can of worms and be at the center of a controversy or just take heart in the fact that they were true to the ethics of their profession? This type of cases present the “action inaction bias” where in general people view their own actions as much more important than inactions – which means that accountants are more likely to care about their own actions than about reporting the actions of others.  Yet, accountants must remember that they are accountable for not just their actions, but also their non-actions, if either tend to affect the public adversely.

Overall the study of accountancy, and understanding its challenges is not only important in its own right, but it also provide an important case from which to view problems of conflicts of interest


This guest post is contributed by Omar Adams, he writes on the topic of online accounting degrees . He welcomes your comments at his email id: omaradams47@gmail.com.