How can you teach accounting ethics?

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.

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About Mark P. Holtzman

Chair of Accounting Department at Seton Hall University. PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Worked at Deloitte's New York Office. BSBA from Hofstra University.

3 comments

  1. I feel that ethics cannot be taught in a classroom in the sense of "in this situation this or that is the right course of action", but rather I think that students should be taught why they need to act ethically. Students should be made aware that an ethical decision impacts not only their lives and careers but the lives and careers of other people who are at the mercy of others decisions. Also, the consequences of unethical actions should be constantly mentioned. Maybe if we hear almost every class that just by making a few unethical decisions we could be sent to jail, lose our CPA licenses, be barred from practice, and have to disclose the fact we were convicted of a crime on all future applications it will make us think twice if any of us ever thinks about making an unethical accounting decision. Along with this, we should be made more aware of the collateral damage that can be caused by our actions. Maybe if people realized more that the decision they are about to make will impact the lives of people who cannot protect themselves from or come back from financial disaster. Maybe if the management at Enron thought about all their employees who would lose everything and not be able to recover and put themselves in their employees shoes, they would not have made some of the decisions they did. Overall, I think the best way to teach ethics is to teach why ethical decisions should be made and to constantly inform students of the ramifications of their decisions on not only themselves but on other people as well.

  2. I am currently taking an International Accounting class this semester and my professor brought up this topic as well. We were assigned to read an article called “Teaching Accounting Ethics: A Thought Experiment” by Moses Pava. Pava addressed the question of why accounting ethics is not taught much in a classroom environment and that it is not taught correctly when the topic is addressed. Pava also brings up the point of using case studies to teach ethics. He believes that this is a superior method because it compels students to analyze a situation, anticipate consequences, and form an opinion. Pava also notes that the future of teaching ethics will make use of a variety of techniques such as short skits, role playing, videos, and in-class dialogues. I found this paper written by Moses Pava to be extremely enlightening and it made me more aware of the void of ethics in general accounting curriculum.

  3. People tend to lie cheat and steal because they are selfish. Ethical dilemmas are not dilemmas at all when people don't think beyond themselves. Teaching ethics is almost impossible unless you are a parent. People need to have a feeling that something is wrong and that has more to do with how we are raised than anything else (in my opinion of course) Reflecting on my business ethics course at SHU, I didn't learn ethics. I learned things like stakeholder theory and how business decisions can have many different impacts. I will always be presented with choices, and how I make those choices will have to do with my personal values and beliefs, unfortunately not what I learned in a classroom.

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