The only way is ethics

October 2022

A profound knowledge and respect for the highest standards of professional integrity are a condition of entry for new accountants, says Ann Lamb, ACCA’s director – professional qualifications… ‘Ethics’ means a lot more to accountants than the name of the English county that lies between Suffolk and Middlesex.

Along with our professional skills, ethics are the area where we make our difference. That’s especially true in the digital era, when business needs the human element to prevail against a trend to delegate decision-making to artificial intelligence, algorithms and the dead hand of big data.

It’s why ACCA became the first accountancy body in the world to include an ethical component into its Qualification. Our industry-leading Ethics and Professional Skills Module (EPSM) ensures that no one can claim those magical four letters – ACCA – after their name without studying, absorbing and demonstrating a profound knowledge and respect for the highest standards of integrity and ethical behaviour.

EPSM introduces students to broad ethical and professional values which underpin all other skills and behaviours. Those values provide a framework and a moral compass for the accountant to guide their actions. At the same time, professional skills give you the confidence to hit the ground running in business, building your abilities in decision making, leadership and communication.

The module has been in constant review since it was launched to ensure it remains up-to-date with the latest developments in business life. It’s a condition of entry, and rightly so.

First of all it’s important to define what we mean by ‘ethics’ in the modern world, because the issues aren’t always as clear-cut as they used to be. Just ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘following your conscience’ used to be a good guide. Now, with the prospect of advanced machine learning taking decisions away from people, we need a more active pursuit of good ethics. Fine intentions are not enough.

It’s usually clear what bad ethical behaviour is. But what does good ethics look like? It’s sometimes less obvious, but if we embrace three universal values we can be confident we are on the right path to working with integrity, dedication and wisdom and, crucially, serving as defenders of the public interest.

They are:

1. A determination to understand digital technology as it advances, with all its plusses, perils and pitfalls.

2. Displaying the confidence to apply our knowledge in real-world situations.

3. Thinking globally, with a consistent ethical framework guiding us.

These are vital because a huge challenge for business in the decades to come is trust – how far customers, investors and employees are prepared to support them, trade with them, or work for them in an environment where transactions are increasingly data driven.

These are the big questions facing us, and how we answer them will decide the future of business.

The fact that we work in an online and digital world puts ethics under the spotlight more than ever. We face dilemmas about the use of data, oversight and accountability that would have been alien to earlier generations.

I am biased, I know, but I believe that our EPSM module is such a valuable innovation because it promotes the concept of ethics imaginatively, creatively and accessibly. EPSM cultivates finance professionals who can use their technical expertise to support sound decision making in a dynamic world.

It is unique in several respects. For example, we’ve introduced peer assessment, where students review other students’ work – which we know is an effective way of reinforcing and validating a common learning culture. The module isn’t about top-down teaching. EPSM doesn’t come with a formal exam. It features informal testing as you go, discovering and working through concepts as an individual, and students complete it at their own pace.

Having said that, I always advise students to try to work through EPSM before their Strategic Professional exams, because the marking scheme rewards students who demonstrate their professional skills alongside a mastery of ethical standards.

And that’s so important, because it’s these elements that separate us from the machines.
The role of accountants is to deploy their professional skills to protect that human element – that ability and willingness to assess ethical consequences and act upon them. It’s that crucial role we are called upon to fill in the years to come.

• Ann Lamb is ACCA’s director – professional qualifications