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ETHICS FOR EVERYONE

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Teaching is depressing. Every year, my baldness spreads, my bones calcify, my ear-hair sprouts, and every year, the students walk into class exactly the same age as they were the year before. The other day, a female student waited for everyone else to leave after class, and then told me sweetly that she had a question that had nothing to do with the lecture I had just given. Exactly the same thing had happened years ago when I first started lecturing, and that student had proceeded to ask me on a date. Then, it had felt awkward, but now my heart leapt to think that I was still considered eligible, until it turned out that what she wanted to know was whether I was the same Jimmy Winfield as the young man who used to visit her parents when she was a one-year-old.

Ironically, by most people’s standards, I’m still young – I haven’t even had my first proctologist appointment yet – but the genuinely eternal youth of students already makes me feel old and – worse! – out of touch. For me, “the Hoff” is still Michael Knight, “Twitter” is a sound made by birds, and “c u l8r” is an indication that the cellphone network is malfunctioning.

But nothing makes me feel so out of touch as when I give the Accounting Ethics lecture on the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC). I mean, these are people who manage to share their whole lives in tweets of 140 characters or less, and I’m expecting them to become intimately familiar with a document of 76 pages! Now, perhaps you are thinking that accounting students have to be able to read long documents – after all, GAAP standards aren’t exactly renowned for their brevity – but ethics is different from, say, accounting for the Effects of Changes in Foreign Exchange Rates. Ethics is about three very personal, exciting and fundamental questions – who we are, how we relate to others, and what we choose to strive for – and so it demands a document, which is more concise, more lively, and more attention-grabbing than the GAAP standards, which, let’s face it, is not only long, but is also about as dry as last year’s biltong. (Interestingly, the CFA Institute is hip to this problem: its code of ethics covers only two sides of an A4 page).

SAICA itself is not to blame for the length and the dullness of the CPC – three of its four sections come directly from the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) – and such a comprehensive, legalistic document is probably necessary somewhere along the line. But I would like to propose a more accessible and thought-provoking document. Because I am hoping that someone in the next generation of CAs(SA) will read it and say “Man, that is totally dope”, I have called it a Declaration of Professional Ethics. Think of it as an exposure draft for a short, sharp SAICA pronouncement on ethics, in everyday language, with some minor swear words for added effect. To make sure that it gets more attention than the CPC (for example, every CA(SA) reads it just once), perhaps we can get it set to music and, on the night that FQE results are released, it can be sung in chorus by everyone that passes. On second thoughts, maybe people can just join the Facebook group.

Declaration of professional ethics
All CAs(SA) have studied for ages, and passed the FQE, which is bloody hard, so we know that they have the skill-set to do loads of complicated things in the accounting /tax/auditing space. Awesome! The thing is, skills are only half the deal. CAs(SA) have jobs that involve other people trusting them. Sometimes, hugely. You could even say that the whole financial system is dependent on the trust placed in some of them. Seriously. And here’s the catch: to keep the whole world from falling apart, CAs(SA) need more than just skills. They also need something else; they need integrity.

A lot of people think that integrity is not something that can be acquired as an adult. Depending on whether your parents smacked you, or what school you went to, by the time you are out of your teens, you either have integrity, or you don’t. What a load of crap! South Africa is full of heroes who did not have the ideal upbringing, and thugs that did. And there are screw-ups that redeem themselves late in life, and others who live saintly lives until they suddenly fall prey to wicked temptation. Anyone can acquire integrity, and anyone can lose it.

To say that anyone can acquire integrity is not to say that it is easily acquired. This is for two reasons: first, because we are habitual thinkers, we often have a massive blind spot for situations that challenge our integrity; and second, because we are short-term thinkers, even when we can see that our integrity is challenged, we usually really want to do the opposite of what integrity requires. For example, imagine that an audit client gives a CA(SA) a gift worth R1,000. If the CA(SA) works for a firm where such gifts are usually accepted, she will probably, out of habit, accept the gift without thinking that it may be wrong to do so. And even when it is not typical to accept such gifts, she will nevertheless be tempted to accept it, because, hey, gifts worth R1,000 are nice to have. So it is very hard to acquire and maintain integrity, and easy to lose it.

How can you check the blind spot and see clearly the situations that challenge your integrity? First, try to be aware of all of the effects of your actions (or inactions), and especially of any harm that you may cause to others. There is almost never an acceptable excuse for causing harm, and almost always a creative way to avoid it. Second, never assume that your clients, colleagues, or bosses are necessarily right. They are only people, and they can be wrong too. (This includes the colleagues who did your job last year.) Third, maintain a professional scepticism about other people’s motives: if a client, colleague, or boss asks you to behave in a way that will benefit them, consider whether your integrity would be challenged by doing so, because they probably haven’t. Fourth, be on the lookout for the following issues: gifts (they are almost always an attempt to weaken the objectivity of your decision-making); special relationships (where there are no relationships there is no business, but, where relationships are too close, there is no objectivity); confidentiality (the only acceptable excuse for breaching it is integrity itself); and honesty (ditto). Last, when on an audit engagement, be sure to remember who the real clients are: not the business that pays the bills and decides whether to retain your firm for next year, but the shareholders, the stock market, and society-at-large.

Once you are aware that a situation challenges your integrity, but are tempted to act unethically, what then? One approach is to think long-term, and realise that the route which appears easier, more lucrative and less confrontational in the immediate future is much more likely to lead you ultimately up that famous Creek without a paddle. An even better approach is to think long and hard about what you really want in life. Of course you want money and power – that is part of our animal impulse – but is that all you want? You are more than a chimp lunging around for territory and status, whose instincts are designed not to make him happy, but rather only to spread his genes. You have a conscience, a sense of connectedness to other people, and an ability to seek your own contentment. By all means, seek your own advancement too, but not at the expense of any of these things, for they are worth more than any level of material goods or social position.

Finally, remember that your integrity is one of the only things that is truly yours: no-one else can take possession of it (even if you want them to), and no-one else can throw it away. And, if you are stupid enough to throw it away yourself, it’ll be a moer of a job to get it back.

Jimmy Winfield, BBusSc, BCom (Hons), PGDA, is a lecturer in the department of Accounting at the University of Cape Town and he also runs the Cape Business Seminars.