The ethical considerations of the accountancy profession

26 Feb 20

In part two of our two-part look into ethics, we will now consider the specific ethical responsibilities of professional accountants.

Part one introduced the wider topic of ethics and considered preventative measures.

Key takeaways

  • The role of a public sector accountant is unique in that they are responsible for the public purse and therefore need to uphold a high ethical standard in their work
  • There are five fundamental principles that professional accountants are required to uphold
  • Accountants and students can access guidance and standards of professional practice via their membership body, such as CIPFA


How are accountants different?

Openness, honesty and selflessness are just three of the key principles of public life. Accountants working within the public sector are expected to adhere to a consistent set of standards that are also in accordance with these principles. 

The responsibilities and duties of accountants differ from those of other professions in that not only are they responsible to their employer, but also to the public. Their work needs to be trusted by society as well as by individual employers, clients and other stakeholders. A public sector accountant is entrusted with protecting the public purse, so it is therefore vital that they demonstrate complete transparency in their work and can be held accountable for their actions. The professional responsibility of the accountant therefore is to act in the public interest.


What are the principles to be upheld?

Each organisation should have a set of ethical standards that they use as the benchmark for their professional practice, and other more specific principles may apply depending on the nature of the particular organisation. However the fundamentals of ethical accounting can be broken down into five core principles which can, and should, be applied universally to the accounting profession as a whole.

Those principles are:

Integrity – for an accountant that means being truthful, as well as straightforward and honest. This also applies to being able to handle people and situations in a fair and impartial manner.  Crucially, the accountant should not make false or misleading statements.

Objectivity – being objective means avoiding being biased, whether that is for personal interest or as a result of pressure from someone else.

Professional competence and due care – this principle should be at the heart of the work of an accountant. It requires ensuring that appropriate technical and other relevant skills are maintained to the necessary level of competence to undertake professional duties.

Confidentiality – it is a well-known fact that accountants will encounter private and often sensitive information about organisations and people in the course of their accountancy work. The utmost care needs to be taken to ensure that this information is not disclosed to anyone except those who have a right to see it.

Professional behaviour – accountants are expected to comply with a code of standards and laws to avoid any action which could bring the accountancy profession into disrepute.


Where can public sector accountants get guidance and support?

Professional membership bodies such as CIPFA will be able to provide a set of standards for professional practice.  These are not usually prescriptive rules, but will instead provide a conceptual framework to enable you to identify, evaluate and address threats.

For example, CIPFA’s Standards of Professional Practice (SOPP) considers how threats to your professional integrity such as self- interest or intimidation could place pressure for you to act contrary to the fundamental principles outlined above. It also suggests safeguards in the form of institutional procedural frameworks and personal responses to overcome threats.

It is the responsibility of the accountant to become familiar with the fundamental principles. However, knowing them alone is not enough and accountants should ensure that there are regular reviews of their work situations for threats to the five principles.

Membership bodies are also able to provide advice and support regarding any concerns you may have about yours or a colleague’s behaviour in the workplace. A formalised complaints system may also be available for you to report your findings.


Questions for you

  • Are you aware of the five fundamental principles and apply these to all of the work that you do?
  • Do you have a framework of standards which you can refer to and apply to your day-to-day tasks?
  • Do you know who to contact if any concerns or issues arise?


Further information

CIPFA provides support to its members and students with a dedicated ethics hub of resources. 

Find out more on the CIPFA website.


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