Comment – Ethical presentation of truth

Being a professional at the cusp of the 21st century really isn’t easy. Everyone wants to be one, even footballers. But apart from the fact that professionals are paid, nobody agrees about precisely what they are. This is particularly frustrating to those of us who are members of a profession of venerable but, let us stress with haste, not inordinate age.

What does differentiate a professional person from the rest of the herd?

I think that the significant difference is adherence to an ethical code.

But, let me be unambiguous about this. This is quite unrelated to professional quality, or to adherence to an imposed code of conduct. Ethics within this context are a personal concept derived from within the individual.

They are, essentially, about the presentation of truth.

That truth extends to honesty as to whether the professional acted correctly, or not.

It extends to whether the professional can honestly accept an engagement that is within their competence, or not. But most importantly it encompasses their willingness to stand up for their own integrity when it may result in conflict with their client.

Nothing will identify a professional person more than their willingness to say no. That may be the ability to refuse to endorse a mortgage application.

Or declining to act for a client who will not declare the full consequences and circumstances of their affairs to the Inland Revenue. Or to refuse to work for an employer who does not allow a member in business to comply with their professional ethics. Or it may, just as appropriately, be the willingness to qualify the accounts of a FTSE company whatever the consequence to the auditor.

There has been much debate about the expectation gap. I have never been surprised about this. The public perceives, and absolutely correctly, that there is always an accountant who will sign any set of accounts if the price is right. And that may be true.

Don’t blame the public if they expect better of us. A profession is as good as its weakest member. Our lowest common denominator is set by the qualified accountant who will do the work that another declines on ethical grounds. They set our public image. And we are no better than them if we pass on our less desirable clients to others without considering the full ethical implications.

If we wish for a future where expectation matches the reality, then we must expect more of ourselves, and of our colleagues, than anybody would expect of the profession as a whole. By doing so we can close the expectation gap. And we can truly present ourselves as ethical professionals.

Richard Murphy FCA is senior partner at Murphy Deeks Nolan.

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