When asking a school child what values his/her school embraces, he/she will quickly tell you: respect, honesty, fairness, responsibility, acceptance, excellence …
We all develop personal values from a very young age, and these values are personally embedded in who we are, where we come from, what we have experienced, and how we see the world. Personal values are ‘broad desirable goals that motivate people’s actions and serve as guiding principles in their lives’. A person can have many values with some values being more important than others. The values that are most important to you often guide your actions and decision-making in all aspects of your life, for example career, religion, social circles and self-identity.
Even though some core values remain the same, for example ‘What do I stand for?’ or ‘What are my core beliefs?’, some values change and develop over time. What may be of value to you at school, may be different when you are a student. Again, what you may value during your studies may change when you enter the world of work. In some cases, a value becomes more prominent because of a close or personal experience, for example safety, justice, or faithfulness.
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ values, it is more about the meaning of a value for the person, and how it influences behaviour. The same value in different people can prompt different behaviours, for example valuing success may for one person mean work very hard to gain career success, whereas someone else may take advantage of others to climb the career ladder. These differing value systems create challenges in professions where members appear not to have a common understanding of appropriate behaviour.
Furthermore, one’s personal values may differ from one’s work values, organisational values, and professional values. Quite often these values are in conflict and conflicting values create ethical dilemmas. For example, do I follow the law and report the non-compliance (value of honesty and duty) or do I keep quiet because my friend will be jailed (value of loyalty)? Choosing between right and wrong becomes blurred and individuals are often driven by their ‘gut’ or personal values on deciding ‘what is the right thing to do?’.
It is also interesting to note that some individuals tend to always choose the behaviour that aligns to compliance with laws and regulations (duty ethics / deontology) without necessarily considering the consequences of their actions and behaviours. Others tend to choose the action that will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (utilitarian ethics), thus carefully considering the consequences of their actions.
When preparing future accountants for the world of work, it is important to develop their moral characters and compasses. The ethical principles, values and virtues (virtue ethics) of integrity, objectivity, competence and confidentiality, and professionalism should drive their behaviours as professionals.
During the academic education programme, these professional and ethical values are often taught using an externally based, compliance approach, for example learn how to comply with the SAICA Code of Professional Conduct, or the King IV principles and practices. Compliance-based ethics education may reduce an accountant’s propensity to commit illegal, unethical acts, however such training does not reduce the accountant’s propensity to commit legal, unethical acts.
Given this, some accounting education programmes have moved beyond teaching ethics as compliance. However, there is conflicting evidence as to how to effectively teach and learn ethics to build a moral character and instil ethical values. In South Africa, the main components included in the Business and Professional Ethics modules of accredited programmes include SAICA’s Code of Professional Conduct, governance (with reference to the King IV report), as well as company ethics. While some courses include ethical decision-making, very few cover ethics theories (deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics), the underpinning motivators for behaving in a certain manner.
Concentrating on learning objectives to increase students’ awareness of their personal values and the role values play in ethical decision making, a Canadian study gave accounting students exercises that required them to clarify their values and then write individual and personal codes of conduct that are intended to instruct their future professional selves to behave ethically. A similar study is planned in South Africa, with several universities participating (see box for details about the Collaborative Ethics Research Group). The purpose of the study is to enable students to identify, clarify and reflect on their personal values. Then, by giving voice to their values, students are equipped to respond to normative questions of ‘what is the right thing to do?’ and the behavioural question ‘how do we get the right thing done’.
Collaborative Ethics Research Group
The aim of the Collaborative Ethics Research Group is to conduct several studies relating to the status of ethics in accountancy in South Africa. Topics range from the education of ethics to ethics training and ethical conduct in the world of work.
The study will be conducted over the three or four years of the academic programme to determine how students’ ethical health develops and hopefully make better ethical decisions. It is envisaged that such an exercise to ‘give voice to one’s own values’ will assist students to buy-in to a universal set of ethical values and principles as underpinned in the SAICA Code of Professional Conduct. It might also assist students to reflect on whether one’s personal values differ (or should differ?) significantly from one’s work or professional values.
Some are of the opinion that ethics is already predetermined by lived experiences and environments before entering university and that ethics education does not matter. We firmly believe that the university provides a ‘safe space’ for students to discuss personal values and experiences. Students acquire tools in the format of case studies and role-plays of ethical dilemmas that may be experienced in the world of work, without personal risks associated with job loss, whistleblowing, and intimidation. Discussions include aspects associated with lack of independence, being transparent, applying professional scepticism, having a critical mind-set, and establishing self-values.
However, universities also have an important role to play by introducing consequences when students behave unethical. These include taking action against students who are copying from other students, faking sick notes and unethical conduct during tests and exams.
The further development of ethical acumen continues through the SAICA training programme.
1 L Sagiv, S Roccas, J Cieciuch and SH Schwartz, Personal values in human life, Nature Human Behaviour 1(9):630−639, 2017.
2 These principles are clearly set out in the SAICA Code of Professional Conduct.
3 Results of a study conducted in 2019 among all SAICA-accredited universities. This study forms part of the work of the larger Ethics Collaborative Research Group. The study was conducted with the support of SAICA. Participants from all universities were invited to the Ethics Education workshop that facilitated the data collected for this study.
4 NT Sheehan and JA Schmidt, Preparing accounting students for ethical decision making: developing individual codes of conduct based on personal values, Journal of Accounting Education 33(3):183–197, 2015.
5 MC Gentile, Giving voice to values: how to speak your mind when you know what’s right, Yale University Press, 2010; S Mintz, Giving voice to values: a new approach to accounting ethics education, Global Perspectives on Accounting Education 13(1):37–50, 2016.
AUTHORs | Professor Ilse Lubbe CA(SA), Associate Professor, University of Cape Town, and Professor Kato Plant, Associate Professor, University of Pretoria