DEFINITION OF ‘ETHICS’ DECONSTRUCTED

DEFINITION OF ‘ETHICS’ DECONSTRUCTED

Ethics are more important today than ever before and that its importance in the business world will increase exponentially in future. 

Generally speaking, ethics or moral philosophy is a collective of philosophical principles that include defining, defending and recommending concepts of what are considered right and wrong behaviour. While SAICA’s Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) does not specifically define ‘ethics’ or ‘professional ethics’, it establishes, in part A of the code, fundamental principles of professional ethics for chartered accountants. The CPC provides a conceptual framework that chartered accountants need to comply with. In parts B and C of the CPC, the conceptual framework outlines in part A of the code is explained and guidance provided as to how the fundamental principles should be applied in various situations. 

What the CPC aims to achieve is to inculcate a culture of high moral standards among all SAICA members and associates. In the fast-pace, headline-grabbing and often opportunity-seeking world of business and politics we live in today, it is the duty of professional bodies such as SAICA to play the role ‘guardian angel’ to its members, who invariably encounter threats that may impede their ability to comply with the fundamental principles of professional conduct. 

IMPORTANCE OF ETHICS TODAY 

Are ethics important in today’s world? Absolutely! 

Speaking of fundamental principles (the very principles – not rules – outlined in the CPC): one has to ask whether these sufficiently guard SAICA’s mantra of ‘integritas’. Yes, integrity is the first and one of the five fundamental principles of the CPC. But do members truly bear these in mind when they are faced with ethical dilemmas. Is this an ‘oath’ that is engraved in the very core of our beings as chartered accountants? Should SAICA not perhaps look at requesting – like most audit firms do – members to declare annually their allegiance to the fundamental principles of the CPC? It is more important than ever for ethics to make up the DNA of a chartered accountant or any other professional or business person, both in the public and private sectors. The moral degeneration of our society and corrupt practices in both private and public institutions make a compelling case that ethics, more than any other moral principle, demands our attention. Our ethical standards – and most importantly, integrity – as professionals are constantly being brought into the spotlight. Actions of both civil servants and corporate professionals are questioned on a regular basis. Technically speaking, if an individual (in this case, a chartered accountant) applies for a job which he or she knows, either he or she doesn’t qualify for (be it for lack of qualifications or experience; the latter being debateable) or lack the aptitude to learn and adapt the core skills required for the job, that individual would have breached the fundamental principle of ‘professional competence and due care’.

Business transactions are increasingly being conducted on virtual platforms. Because the human touch in such transactions and related services has diminished over time, it is critical for professionals to apply their minds when they are faced with ethical dilemmas. 

THE FOCUS OF ETHICS 

Ethics in business can be focused on large or small businesses or government. 

Corporates (big or small) and the public sector (government) grapple with the ethical misdemeanours almost on a daily basis. What constitutes ‘business networking’ and what would be considered ‘bribery’? When clients are hosted as VIPS and VVIPs at high-end sporting events and/or gala dinners, is that showing client appreciation or enticing clients to act in a certain way and therefore provide more opportunities to the host’s business? Is that different to paying the client the cash equivalent of the VIP sporting event/gala dinner ticket and expect them to give you more business? 

These are just some of the ‘threats’ to compliance with the fundamental principles of the CPC that SAICA members have to deal with, both in the private and public sector.

ETHICAL DILEMMAS FACED BY EMPLOYEES

Sustainability of a business (private or public) or an NGO or NPO requires individuals with a high level of ethical standards. In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko says, ‘Greed is good’. But greed is the enemy of ethical standards. There is a thin line between ambition and greed. As some of us strive to make a success of our lives, both professionally and at a personal level, we often push boundaries to get to where we believe we should be. Networking or ‘entertaining’ clients often involves the question of greed versus ambition. If, for example, an employee of Company A makes an acquaintance of a client (Company B) but the relationship goes beyond discussing corporate business matters and more towards offering other ‘professional services’ to the individual concerned (Company B’s representative), and not in their capacity as an official (for example, the CFO of Company B) but rather as a third party – will that be considered being ambitious or is it greed?

Of course there is ‘restriction of trade’ and other employment contract policies such as being prohibited from ‘working/competing against your employer’ that needs to be considered, but almost invariably what would be requested by the client (as per the above example) would not be considered viable/profitable business for larger institutions. This may sound like I’m justifying the situation, but the reality is that these instances do happen more often than not and quicker than an update of the CPC could be drafted.

C S Lewis once famously wrote: ‘Integrity is doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching.’

SAICA as an organisation prides itself on its high ethical standards. It is hoped that its members are living up to these standards.

Reference:

Malesela Les Montja CA(SA) – Analyst at Diversified Finance Division Nedbank (Accountancy SA)