Issues related to ethics and morals are never far from the news. In the past few months alone we’ve seen David Cameron describe comedian Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs as ‘morally wrong’, the morals of publishing topless images of the Duchess of Cambridge called into question, the entire moral ethos of the BBC challenged and claims that we’ve living in a time where public behaviour is at its most detached from a moral framework.

It’s in this context that I wrote an article for this month’s edition of International Accountant magazine, discussing Ethical Dilemmas for Accountants.

Ethics are the moral principles by which we live our lives. If we all lived by the same morals, we’d never encounter an ethical dilemma; in reality the deep-rooted values that drive our behaviour differ from person to person, and also often differ from the law. Making decisions about ethics is ultimately difficult because:

  • you may end up damaging a person or group in some way;
  • the outcomes following from your decision are equally unattractive;
  • there is more at stake than simply legal or business issues; and
  • there is a contradiction between what you naturally feel is the ‘right’ choice, and what you actually want to do.

So how should people make decisions about ethical issues? The answer is to use a decision-making framework. Many companies and organisations have their own, but the one featured in the article is based on the five-step framework outlined in the Handbook of the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. Try it out next time you’re struggling with an ethical dilemma:

1.   What are the facts?

  • What are the relevant facts about the situation?
  • Are you making any assumptions? Could you replace these with facts instead?
  • Who is affected by the situation and in what way? What are each stakeholder’s values and their desired outcomes?

2.   What are the ethical issues?

  • What professional, organisational or personal ethics are involved?
  • How might they affect your practice, the profession, the public interest or your personal reputation?

3.   What are the fundamental values and principles?

  • What aspects of the code of conduct relate to the issue?
  • Which of your personal, professional or organisational values are under threat?

4.   What are the established decision-making procedures?

  • What factors or perspectives should take priority?
  • Who needs to be involved in the decision?
  • Who will make the final decision?

5.   What are the alternative options?

  • To what extent does each alternative minimise harm to those involved?
  • To what extent does each alternative uphold the values and principles within the code of conduct?
  • How practical is it to implement each option?
  • Are there any underlying motives influencing your decision? Would you make a different choice if you suppressed these?

To boost your knowledge about ethics, and develop your own decision-making skills, you can take my online learning course on Professionalism and ethics for accountants