Innovative ways to teach accounting ethics

Show students the real-world consequences of unethical behaviour.

By Sophie Hares

Not everything is black and white in accounting, so it’s imperative to teach students how to ethically navigate the myriad shades of grey.

“What I find important is to make sure that people who took my class don't leave with just the impression that accounting is only about numbers and calculations, because these calculations have social and ethical implications,” said Berend van der Kolk, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at IE University in Madrid, who recently published an article on teaching ethics in Accounting Education.

Though ethics is a crucial subject to cover, teaching it can be a challenge. Accounting faculty have a great deal of material to cover, and may find it hard to fit ethics into their already-packed syllabi. Undergraduate students with little workplace experience might struggle with the abstract concept of ethics. Ethical norms can vary depending on culture, so faculty must broach the topic with sensitivity. 

However, by gradually introducing concepts around ethics and using lively, imaginative teaching techniques, faculty can play an essential role in developing accountants who are prepared to do the right thing.

Experienced faculty members share their top tips for teaching ethics:

  • Use real-life examples. Capture students’ attention with case studies from companies where unethical behaviour has taken place. Gleaning insights into the people behind the headlines and the pressures they face helps students envisage how they would react in similar situations.

Geetha Rubasundram is a forensic accounting specialist with 20 years of industry experience, including 8 years of teaching ethics at university level, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in governance. She uses cases such as the Wirecard scandal in her classes. She points students to court orders and press releases ­­posted on the payment provider’s website before talking them through the case. Students should consider why the potential wrongdoing went undetected for so long and whether internal auditors, external auditors, or regulators should be held responsible for not uncovering it sooner, she said.

  • Tailor classes for your audience. Undergraduates with little workplace experience find it hard to grasp the complex scenarios controllers or auditors face, said Paul Jennings, senior accounting lecturer at the UK’s University of Winchester.

He suggests a soft introduction to ethics such as asking first-year students what they would do if they accidently stumbled across an exam paper.

“To teach them ethics, you’ve got to relate to their own environment first. When they’ve got some of the vocabulary of talking about ethics, then you can get them to apply that to an accounting environment,” Jennings said.

Gradually building up scenarios by layering information with real-life examples can help students analyse topics accountants might face, such as the ethical challenges around estimating liabilities, he said.

Asking students to consider abstract scenarios and apply what they learned to the accounting world also helps hone critical thinking, Van der Kolk said. 

His students debate concepts such as putting a price tag on human life or on the Amazon rainforest to help understand that assigning a value to an asset can have social and ethical implications, he explained.

  • Be aware of deep cultural differences towards unethical practices. Depending on their background, students may take a different view towards ethical issues. For instance, bribery and corruption may be seen as a cost of doing business in some countries. Within the accounting profession, though, certain standards must be upheld. All CIMA members worldwide are bound by the CIMA Code of Ethics

It can sometimes be tricky to convince students that some forms of corruption are wrong, Rubasundram said.

“It comes down towards reaching out to each and every one of these different backgrounds and personalities, cultures, ego perspectives … you're not going to convince a person overnight,” she said. “You need to slowly drill into their heads why we need to be focused on ethics and why it's not something which is subjective. It's about doing what's right.”

She wants students to understand that corruption is not just a developing-world issue. It may just be better disguised in European or American companies, which makes it even more important to recognise tell-tale signs, she warns.

  • Show how unethical behaviour can affect others. Fraudulent practices such as massaging numbers can have far-reaching consequences, so walk students through their impact. In his classes, Van der Kolk asks students to consider how international transfer pricing practices to avoid taxes can affect the developing countries that miss out on tax revenue as a result.

He asks classes to produce 15-minute videos that introduce and contextualise accounting-related dilemmas. Classmates then discuss these dilemmas in online forums with lecturers adding comments to direct the discussion.

  • Present different sides to a situation. Ethical issues are often complex. For instance, textbook whistle-blowers stand up against corrupt practices without fear of retribution, but that’s rarely the case in the real world, Rubasundram said. Though many nations and organisations have taken steps to protect whistle-blowers, people who expose potentially criminal actions still face being scapegoated and may find it difficult to work in their industries again. In some countries, their lives could be in danger.

Using YouTube videos of whistle-blower testimonies in her classes, she teaches students to be fully aware of the laws in the countries in which they work, as well as the potential dangers of implicating themselves in any wrongdoing.

Ethics is “not just about standing up for what is right. Students need to be prepared [to see it] from a lot of angles, comparing the moral and legal sides of a dilemma,” she said.

CIMA offers many resources that can be helpful when teaching ethics, including a student ethics support tool. Its Ethical Dilemmas page contains a list of short, fictional ethical scenarios and guidance on how to handle them. Several of the scenarios are relevant to students and early-career professionals. The 2019 CIMA Professional Qualification Syllabus recommends areas of the curriculum where ethics should be taught. Faculty may also want to use this CGMA case study involving an ethical dilemma.

— Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Mexico. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor with the Association’s Magazines and Newsletters team, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.