A Question of Ethics

This is a guest post by Dave, who is also looking to retire no later than 45, but unlike Tim has no kids and doesn’t want any. Dave is from Ontario and is working towards his CGA certification.

I listened to an interesting podcast this week on NPR’s Planet Money podcast titled “Why People Do Bad Things”.  The podcast interviews a guy who committed millions of dollars in real estate fraud in an attempt to get to the bottom of the reasons individuals decide to do illegal things.  These types of questions interest me, as many of the senior level accounting courses I have taken deal extensively with ethical questions and the general response that a professional individual is supposed to have.

Generally, what the accounting association (and I’m guessing most professional organizations) would like the individual do when there has been something unethical or illegal found is to either withdraw from the engagement, get a lawyer and ask what legal liabilities I would have as an accountant being associated with some illegal activity, or finally discuss the issue with the association and figure out if you need to go to the police.

The issue with the vast majority of these actions is that you will probably lose the individual as a client, meaning a loss of money.  If the individual accountant does not have their personal finances in order – they have purchased too much house, are making payments on two cars, and have some credit card debt, the loss of a possibly “crooked” client may lead them on the path to financial disaster, whether or not it is the right thing to do.

I had a conversation with an individual at work who was in their early 60’s and he explained to me that he was able to get more enjoyment out of work because he is now able to “battle” for what he feels is right.  As a younger man, with a family to feed and debts to pay he probably would have just kept his head down and done what he was told.

I think this situation takes place all over – whether it was the guy on the podcast I listened to, who fraudulently created properties in order to get loans to pay for bad business deals (and happened to involve other people in his activities on his way to jail), or someone in a normal office setting who would rather not raise an issue to remain anonymous.  Imagine you’re in your mid-fifties, have minimal savings and high monthly expenses with your bosses breathing down your neck.  Are you going to do what’s right, or what the bosses would like you to do (with a higher opportunity in keeping your job)?

I would like to think that due to the state of my personal finances, I will be better able to make the correct ethical decision, if a dicey situation ever comes up.  I am not afraid of losing my job, my wife and I will not lose our house or not eat if that happens.  If I see something I feel very strongly about, either now or in the future I will be able to act as I have been taught or want to act rather than how others would like me to.

Would you let money (and your future with your work) get in the way of your personal ethics?

4 thoughts on “A Question of Ethics”

  1. Excellent post Dave! I think this is great question for people to look at. By the way, yes most other professions have similar ethical requirements.

    I have to say personally the further down the ER path I go the less willing I am to put up with bullshit. This isn’t to say that I will disobey my boss, but rather I’m comfortable stating my opinion on the matter or providing an alternative way of doing something.

    Yet that is a little different than outright illegal things. In that case I’m a little bit more willing to push the issue to ensure the company fixes the situation. Does that label me a bit of pain in the ass to management? Perhaps, I don’t know. I still get good performance reviews in spite of it. Yet I’m not interested in a senior management job anyway, so perhaps it works out for everyone.


  2. I had a big issue with ethics in my previous career. Although not the only reason, it was certainly a big reason for why I decided to change fields.

    Too many times, I’d see students and postdocs hung out to dry because the PI wouldn’t publish their results when it contradicted with things the lab had already published – even if the results were legitimate. Other times, PIs would refuse to print retractions when mistakes were discovered – a type of scientific fraud. Many other times, animal experiments were allowed to continue much further and longer than is allowed according to current standards for suffering and care – justified because “we’d already invested so much time/money” into it.

  3. I found when one starts out and questions why things are being done a certain way, you’re told that”s just the way it is and usually you go along with it because you’re not sure. Later when you become more experienced you have to make the decisions. As a self-employed bookkeeper, I have fired clients because I knew they were doing illegal things and expecting me to cover up for them. What I also found is that while they were the ones taking the cash out of the register, they were accusing everyone else of doing it. They don’t think that anyone else is honest. I prefered having a couple less clients to the stress of dealing with them and their books.

  4. Unless we have been tried in real life situations, I think most of “what would I do” is idle speculation. It’s easy to think we’d do the right thing.

    But how many of us are taking strong moral stances on things that really matter to us? Stances that significantly affect our lives socially or financially?

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