Ethics is one of the three pervasive skills competency areas to be developed in all entry-level CAs(SA) that SAICA requires in its rigorous qualification process.
‘Whether recently qualified or highly experienced, all chartered accountants [CAs(SA)] are required to uphold ethical principles and conduct themselves professionally. Acting with integrity, through adherence to the values stipulated in SAICA’s Code of Professional Conduct, is fundamental to the profession’s commitment to excellence and the public interest.’
The concept of and evaluation of ethics and ethical behaviour is thus embodied in what being a CA(SA) is required to understand and develop from the start of a CA(SA)’s professional journey, starting during the qualification period.
Understanding and behaving ethically is one of the four cornerstones to our profession:
- Having a unique set of competencies. Competencies is a broad term used to describe knowledge, skills, attributes and values that CAs(SA) should be able to demonstrate.
- A commitment to lifelong learning – being able to reflect on and learn or develop based on the role the professional plays.
- Subscribing to a code of professional conduct and behaving ethically.
- Contributing towards a greater society through giving back and being socially responsible.
So what do we mean by subscribing to a code of professional conduct and how do we develop this in the process of qualifying as a CA(SA)?
A code of conduct is defined as:
‘… a collection of rules and regulations that include what is and is not acceptable or expected behaviour.‘
The SAICA Code of Professional Conduct (the Code) prescribed by the Institute for all of its members, associates and trainee accountants, conforms to the code released by the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA), a standard-setting board of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). This code has recently been restructured, making it easier to ‘navigate, use and enforce’, according to the IFAC website.
The SAICA competency framework, which outlines all areas where entry-level CAs(SA) should be proficient at point of entry to the profession, covers a number of areas, one of which relates to ethics.
The introduction to the section on ethics in the competency framework states that:
‘Integrity means acting ethically and honestly, carrying out all work with an objective frame of mind and maintaining independence, both in fact and in appearance, when involved in delivering independent services. Integrity also means that CAs(SA) raise and address issues regarding stewardship – that is, the discharge by management of its stewardship responsibilities to those who have provided resources to an entity. CAs(SA) monitor whether management is being accountable and honest in addressing issues of stewardship and when making decisions or reporting information. Whether acting in a management or monitoring role, CAs(SA) are required to consider the impact of an entity’s operations on the resources and relationships or capitals that it relies on, produces and affects and understand their stewardship and reporting responsibilities. In addition, they must think about their responsibility to act as good corporate citizens, taking into account the current resources of the entity, the natural environment and other such matters.‘
The specific competencies related to ethics are set out as follows:
- Using an ethical reasoning process.
- Protecting the public interest.
- Acting competently with honesty and integrity.
- Performing work competently and with due care.
- Maintaining objectivity and independence.
- Avoiding conflict of interest.
- Protecting the confidentiality of information.
- Maintaining and enhancing the profession’s reputation.
- Adhering to laws, professional standards and policies and the rules of professional conduct when exercising professional judgement.
What the SAICA competency framework sets out to achieve goes beyond just being able to apply a set of rules. By understanding what an ethical reasoning process is and being given the opportunity to develop this ethical reasoning process is key during the qualification process (comprising both the academic and training programmes).
The focus in the academic programme (being the three-year undergraduate programme plus the one-year post-graduate programme) is both on developing the ethical reasoning process as well as ensuring that students understand the SAICA Code.
Universities are at liberty to develop these competencies using a number of different approaches; through a stand-alone ethics course or by integrating this into the core disciplines. It would appear that over time the universities have tended towards lecturing the Code as part of the auditing programme.
The limitations of teaching ethics in the academic programme include:
- Students may leave the programme believing that being ethical only relates to the auditing part of their work;
- Students are generally assessed through a written exam and can learn and repeat the correct answer (but this does not mean that when faced with that situation they will behave accordingly).
Improvements to the teaching of ethics in the academic environment can be achieved by ensuring that ethics is addressed across all disciplines though an integrated and case study approach. Reflective practices, such as keeping a journal in which students reflect on ethical situations they face and how they dealt with this, can also be introduced.
The training programme (three-year practical experience component of the CA(SA) qualification process) also requires that ethics competencies are developed and assessed on the job. This is more reflective of real life and where real learning about applying ethics or dealing with ethical dilemmas starts to take place.
SAICA have, however, found that trainees struggle to apply the knowledge they have learnt in the academic programme to practical and real-life situations. SAICA has therefore recently mandated that all its trainees be required to complete a practical ethics course during their three-year training contract period. While a specific provider will not be prescribed, the learning outcomes to be covered are defined and SAICA-accredited training offices will be able to choose how and when to subject trainees to this programme.
The current research project being undertaken by SAICA to identify and articulate the competency requirements CA(SA) professionals of the future will need, has identified ethics as one of the most important areas to focus on.
SAICA and its research team plan to have a draft competency framework for comment by the wider stakeholder community by the end of 2018.
It is this strong commitment to integrity in everything that CAs(SA) do that earns them their reputation for trustworthiness, and the confidence of clients, employers and the public at large. As a result, clients and employers seek to involve CAs(SA) in the most significant financial and business decisions that they face.
Developing an ethical mindset during the qualification process is, however, just the start as CAs(SA) develop a far deeper understanding of ethics and how to deal with ethical dilemmas as they gain experience in situations where they are required to apply the ethical reasoning processes they have developed during the qualification process. CAs(SA) will continually learn and develop in this area post qualification and this forms an important part of any CA(SA)’s Continuing Professional Development.