I’ve long struggled with the question of how students can acquire the ethics of accountancy.
This is an important question to me. I consider myself a spiritual person, and (believe it or not) I consider accounting to be a spiritual service. I’ve conducted research in accounting ethics and the social benefits of accounting. And I teach in a Catholic University where there is a marked emphasis on ethics and shared values.
But whatever my experience or enthusiasm, my attempts to teach ethics usually fall flat.
My most common approach is the case study. A few weeks ago, for example, I worked through a WorldCom case, published by Harvard Business School. It’s a classic case of accounting fraud, very well written. At the end of class, everyone agreed that what Bernie Ebbers and company did was wrong. Very very wrong. They all deserved to go to jail, some for longer sentences, some for shorter. But this left me asking: how will this case make my students better accountants, who, when tested by the real world, will do the right thing? How many of my students would quit their jobs and call the SEC before recording a journal entry that they disagreed with? Case studies are nice, but it is easy to do the right thing when your own career is not at stake.
Another approach is lecturing. “Don’t associate with people you don’t trust,” I tell my students. I can’t imagine that this is effective – students need to discover the ethical place in themselves – they need to ask themselves: Why do I want to do the right thing?
I had the opportunity to sit down with a group of students, Big-4 partners and accounting faculty in a closed meeting last week, and I asked the students: What do you think of our ethics curriculum?
Everyone agreed that it is difficult to “learn” ethics (whatever that means) in a classroom. Then an interesting idea popped up: Keeping and enforcing rules in the classroom help students to learn ethics in an experiential way. For example, just like business people might be tempted to lie, cheat, and steal money, students are tempted to lie, cheat and steal grades. Therefore, many students can learn to manage these temptations in the classroom. They can consider the ethical quandaries, and unfortunately perhaps experience consequences, so that they have a more mature ethical makeup when they go into the real world. From their own experiences, and those of their classmates, they have had the opportunity to reflect on their ethical selves, and be better prepared for the real world.