Ethics at work: How accountants can build moral muscle

Professional accountants need moral muscle in order to fulfil their duties and do the right thing.

US whistleblower John Kiriakou, who went to prison for exposing the CIA torture program, including waterboarding, says he would do it all again. 

He is not alone; many whistleblowers say the same, although some maintain they would do it differently next time. Some also say they did not consider blowing the whistle a courageous act, but rather something they simply had to do. 

Whistleblowers who suffer as a consequence of their disclosures are usually described as morally courageous or as heroes – frequently not by those within the organisation at the centre of the whistleblowing allegations, but by outsiders who admire their strength and self-sacrifice.

Others, of course, dismiss whistleblowers as nutters. Why would you do such a thing? Just put your head down and do what you have to do to get to retirement or the next job. 

In the accounting profession and in relation to work behaviour in general, we are seeing a lot of focus on moral courage. 

Moral courage is about having the strength to do the right thing, even when adverse consequences are expected. It is usually perceived as something that extends over and above the call of duty. 

“If we are not equipped to do what is right, we are more likely to fail and possibly injure ourselves.”

Professional accountants make explicit promises about their behaviour. So their promises to act in the public interest and be objective, capable, honest and competent are not over and above their duty – they are their duty. 

To behave in accordance with the principles of the profession in all their dealings with clients and employers requires a certain professional identity that defines how professional accountants see themselves. It also requires the development of skills and character to meet these professional responsibilities. It requires the development of moral muscle. 

Think of a weightlifter. We would consider someone who has not trained and prepared for a weightlifting competition to be foolish and doomed to failure. The same goes for professional moral muscle. If we do not have the skills and abilities, if we are not equipped to do what is right, we are more likely to fail and possibly injure ourselves. 

It helps to think of moral capability as moral muscle. The metaphor provides us with a good way to conceptualise what needs to be done. It also helps us explain the interaction between moral muscle and courage.

Professional development: Professional ethics - a practical guide

Moral muscle is about having the abilities, confidence and strength to do the right thing so that professional responsibilities are fulfilled.

In building moral muscle, we also create a reputation for moral strength, which, in itself, is likely to be a defence against unethical demands.

So, how do we behave ethically and avoid moral blindness and rationalisation such as “someone else will deal with it”, or “we really do not know enough to be sure”, or “no-one is really hurt”, and so on?

We need to focus on how to build professional moral muscle that will make acting in accordance with the profession’s principles the normal response. By developing and sustaining this muscle, behaving morally will become part of our make-up – a professional habit. 

The more moral muscle we have, the less moral courage we should need – and the less we will have to rely on moral heroes to behave ethically.

Related: What accountants should do where there’s a conflict of interest


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June 2016
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