Roles in ethics education


The interest of ethics education in accounting industry has been increased after a series of high-profile corporate collapses such as Enron, WorldCom and HIH. Public has concerned how the universities, professional accounting bodies and corporations would response to rebuild the reputation of accounting industry. Wilkinson (2007, pp. 38-40) suggests that the skills to recognize and make judgement in ethical situations are critical in the enhancement of ethics education. In line with this, this essay will, first, evaluate the different roles of universities, the professional accounting bodies and corporations in equipping students, candidates, members and employees with the skills to identify and evaluate ethical situations. Second, it discusses the values and decision making models used to make judgement in ethical dilemmas. Finally, it illustrates the values and decision making models with an example in relation to financial accounting and reporting.

Different Roles in Ethics Education

Misiewicz (2007, pp. 15-21) believes that the universities should change their course structure to include ethics as a compulsory subject rather than an optional to ensure the students have strong fundamentals of ethics. However, it seems that universities are facing challenges to cover ethics in their course structure. Firstly, course structure is limited by the academic years and resources of the faculty to develop new courses. It is clear that the design of course structure is consistent with the requirements from professional accounting bodies, hence students are able to claim accreditation when becoming candidates as described by Molyneaux (2004, pp. 385-398). Next, lecturers may found difficulties in teaching ethics as they are not fully trained in their academic and professional experience. In fact, this is a good opportunity for them to enhance their recognizing and judgement skills in ethical dilemmas consistently with the standards during the lecture as stated by Misiewicz (2007, pp. 15-21). Therefore, lecturers and students are benefited from the course in their future professional work. While course structure is designed according to the requirements from professional accounting bodies, it is suggested that professional accounting bodies should revise their requirements and increase pressure on universities to adapt the changes.

Professional Accounting Bodies

Hunt (2007, pp. 35-8) argues that all parts of the profession which include universities, professional accounting bodies and corporations should be blamed regarding the failures of ethics education in accounting. Nevertheless, professional accounting bodies should take more responsibility to improve their professional programs and revise the codes of conduct in order to ensure the candidates and members have sufficient ethical knowledge in practice. There are several suggestions made by Hunt (2007, pp. 35-8), Misiewicz (2007, pp. 15-21) and Mel (2005, pp. 97-109) to overcome the deficiencies in the current situation. Firstly, Hunt (2007, pp. 35-8) suggests that the professional accounting bodies should change the ways to access the ethical knowledge of candidates rather than traditional examinations as International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) stated in a previous discussion paper. Secondly, Misiewicz (2007, pp. 15-21) claims that professional accounting bodies should require candidates to attend compulsory ethics course before taking any professional examinations and encourage members to maintain their professional competence by study continuously. In addition, such claim is supported by the research from Jackling et al. (2007, pp. 928-44) which focused on the role of professional bodies in ethics education. Finally, Mel (2005, pp. 97-109) suggests that role playing and case study styles studying approaches should benefit the candidates to establish a link between theories and practices. It is assumed that the professional accounting bodies would seek an improvement plan shortly to answer the need from public and corporate for the increase of ethical education in accounting.


Lagan (2006, pp. 72-3) claims that most of the business managers are lack of relevant ethics skills and still believe ethics in business decisions is less valuable than the overall success of business. As a result, it is insufficient for the management to sign on the ethical codes but to ensure both management and employees are fully understood and complied with it. Studies have indicated that organizational culture is the major factor that caused ethical failures in a corporation which can be proved in the collapse of Andersen. McDevitt, Giapponi and Tromley (2007, pp. 219-29) suggests that there are individual and situational variables like job context, organizational context and external environment would affect the ethical sensitivity and judgement of the employees. Firstly, job context is the pressure and expectations coming from management. Secondly, organizational context is about the organizational culture and codes of ethics. Finally, the external environment can be explained as some situational variables exist outside the organization like the industry norms and economic factors as described by McDevitt, Giapponi and Tromley (2007, pp. 219-29). Moreover, researches have proved that the integrating the values, virtues and decision making models would significantly help the students, candidates, members and employees to improve their ethical sensitivity and judgement as explained in the following section.

Values, Virtues and Decision Making Models

Values and Virtues

According to Mel (2005, pp. 97-109), it is likely that the values in business context can be defined as the necessary human activities that had a positive effect on improving and maintaining business. Values are always presented in four major categories in professional codes of ethics which included competence, confidentiality, integrity and objectivity. However, it is insufficient for the accountants to behave ethically with the professional code of ethics while failed to encourage them to develop ethical personal virtues and behaviour. Mel (2005, pp. 97-109), claims that such development would be the best solution to help the accountants to behave in the favour of ethical behaviour permanently. Therefore, virtues should be included as a major element in ethical education for all students, candidates and accountants.

Decision Making Model

Decision making models are suggested by several scholars and professional accounting bodies to help the users to achieve an ethical decision in ethical dilemmas. A popular approach is proposed by the American Accounting Association (AAA) which included a seven-step decision making model to guide the users through the ethical dilemmas to determine an ethical decision as described by May (1990, p. 1-2). However, Boyce (2008, pp. 255-90) argues that there are several problems with this decision making model. Firstly, this model is based on business centred and shareholders prioritized background majorly. Hence, it is difficult to find a balance between shareholder interests and ethical business management in the model. Secondly, it seems that the development of ethical values and virtues for the students will be limited by the systemic processes in the model. Thirdly, it can be argued that the model are unlikely to prevent unethical behaviours in practice and may lead to a development of ethical creative accounting. Fourthly, it is important to note that the model users may be discouraged to think beyond the boundaries of the model in practice. Finally, it is suggested that the decision resulted from decision making model may too individual focused and consequently fail to consider the organizational or social ethics. In addition, Boyce (2008, pp. 255-90) believes that the decision making model would just become another technical problem solving skill if the professional accounting bodies failed to recognize the importance of moral sense development.

According to Chan and Leung (2006, pp. 436-57), the moral sense can be subdivided into moral sensitivity, moral judgement, moral motivation and moral character as suggested in the four-component model by Rest (1983). Moral sensitivity refers to the recognition of varies possible actions and the outcome for individuals that would affect the concerned parties. Moral judgement can be defined as the judgement to distinguish the most morally choice from different actions. Moral motivation can be explained as the weight of moral value when comparing to other values like self interest or self protection. Lastly, moral character can be described as the different personalities that influence the intension of individuals to perform an ethical action. Chan and Leung (2006, pp. 436-57) concludes their research by claiming that the moral sensitivity is the most important element in decision making , since it is the initial stage in decision making. Hence, it is evident that decision making of individuals is significantly affected by their development of moral sense.

While Boyce (2008, pp. 255-90) is concerned the usefulness of decision making model in practice, there is a practical model suggested by McDevitt, Giapponi and Tromley (2007, pp. 219-29) to overcome such concern. This practical model has included different variables like individual, job context, organizational context and external environment to help in the decision making process. There are two question based phrases in the model to guide the users to consider different variables in an ethical dilemma. Phrase one will help the users to estimate possible risks by considering different variables and provide decisions according to their answers. At the end of phrase one, users will either start over again when they unable to determine their actions or proceed to phrase two when they decided to confront the conflict. In phrase two, the model suggests the users to refine the problem and conduct an information search to find any alternative solutions for the current conflict situation. Then, users should give sufficient time to consider in all aspects before the decision has been made. It is essential to note this model had an initial assumption that assume users already recognized the ethical and unethical actions as stated by McDevitt, Giapponi and Tromley (2007, pp. 219-29). The following section will illustrate how the values and decision making model related to financial accounting and reporting.

Example in Relation to Financial Accounting and Reporting

The relationship between decision making skills discussed in previous sections and financial accounting and reporting can be illustrated by the example described by McDevitt, Giapponi and Tromley (2007, pp. 219-29). It describes a chief financial officer called John, and he is facing an ethical dilemma as he discovered that the company officials paid illegal bribes to attract contracts. This is the starting point of the model. Initially, John must consider different individual and situational variables like his own financial problems and the reaction from his superior to estimate his risks if he proposed to stop the payment. If the estimation of the risks is minimal, then he should perform the ethical choice of decision to stop the payments. Otherwise, he should proceed to further questions to consider the risks if he accept the unethical action and the legality of the unethical actions. In the case when he decided to face the conflict, then he should refine the problem and search for alternative solutions before he made his decision. The ethical choices he had may include resign from the company or become the whistle blower and let the payment to continue in unethical choice. Through this example, it illustrated that how the decision making model could help accountants when facing ethical dilemmas in financial accounting and reporting aspect.


In conclusion, it is essential for the universities, professional accounting bodies and corporations to continue the development of ethics education in accounting. Universities should focused on the values and virtues development of students by increasing the use of role playing or case study like teaching styles and require ethics to become a compulsory subject at the same time. Professional accounting bodies should change their requirements on candidate program and membership renewal to force candidates and members to enhance their ethical knowledge and skills. Moreover, it is important for them to conduct more research on the possibilities to adapt ethical decision making model in practice as some studies are already proved the advantages these models. Corporations should maintain an ethical organizational culture by correcting the unethical values in management team and employees. It is clear that accounting industry will rebuild the reputation from public if the ethical standard in the industry continually increase.

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