Ethics in accounting is of utmost importance to accounting professionals and those who rely on their services. Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and other accounting professionals know that people who use their services, especially decision makers using financial statements, expect them to be highly competent, reliable, and objective. Those who work in the field of accounting must not only be well qualified but must also possess a high degree of professional integrity. A professional's good reputation is one of his or her most important possessions.
The general ethical standards of society apply to people in professions such as medicine and accounting just as much as to anyone else. However, society places even higher expectations on professionals. People need to have confidence in the quality of the complex services provided by professionals. Because of these high expectations, professions have adopted codes of ethics, also known as codes of professional conduct. These ethical codes call for their members to maintain a level of self-discipline that goes beyond the requirements of laws and regulations.
CODES OF ETHICS
By joining their professional organizations, people who work in the field of accounting agree to uphold the high ethical standards of their profession. Each of the major professional associations for accountants has a code of ethics. The Code of Professional Conduct of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), the national professional association for CPAs, sets forth ethical principles and rules of conduct for its members. The principles are positively stated and provide general guidelines that CPAs (or any professionals, for that matter) should strive to follow. The rules of conduct are much more explicit as to specific actions that should or should not be taken. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) Standards of Ethical Conduct applies to practitioners of management accounting and financial management, and the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) Code of Ethics applies to its members and to Certified Internal Auditors (CIAs).
A distinguishing mark of professions such as medicine and accounting is acceptance of their responsibilities to the public. The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct describes the accounting profession's public as consisting of "clients, credit grantors, governments, employers, investors, the business and financial community, and others who rely on the objectivity and integrity of CPAs to maintain the orderly functioning of commerce." Many, but not all, CPAs work in firms that provide accounting, auditing, and other services to the general public; these CPAs are said to be in public practice. Regardless of where CPAs work, the AICPA Code applies to their professional conduct, although there are some special provisions for those in public practice. Internal auditors, management accountants, and financial managers most commonly are employees of the organizations to which they provide these services; but, as professionals, they, too, must also be mindful of their obligations to the public.
The responsibilities placed on accounting professionals by the three ethics codes and the related professional standards have many similarities. All three require professional competence, confidentiality, integrity, and objectivity. Accounting professionals should only undertake tasks that they can complete with professional competence, and they must carry out their responsibilities with sufficient care and diligence, usually referred to as due professional care or due care. The codes of ethics of the AICPA, IMA, and IIA all require that confidential information known to accounting professionals not be disclosed to outsiders. The most significant exception to the confidentiality rules is that accounting professionals' work papers are subject to subpoena by a court; nothing analogous to attorney-client privilege exists.
Maintaining integrity and objectivity calls for avoiding both actual and apparent conflicts of interest. This notion is termed independence. Being independent in fact and in appearance means that one not only is unbiased, impartial, and objective but also is perceived to be that way by others. While applicable to all accounting professionals, independence is especially important for CPAs in public practice. The AICPA's rules pertaining to independence for CPAs who perform audits are detailed and technical. For instance, a CPA lacks independence and thus may not audit a company if he or she (or the spouse or dependents) owns stock in that company and/or has certain other financial or employment relationships with the client.
To a large extent, the accounting profession is self-regulated through various professional associations rather than being regulated by the government. The AICPA, the IMA, and the IIA have internal means to enforce the codes of ethics. Furthermore, the professional organizations for CPAs in each state, known as state societies of CPAs, have mechanisms for enforcing their codes of ethics, which are usually very similar to the AICPA Code. Violations of ethical standards can lead to a person's being publicly expelled from the professional organization. Because of the extreme importance of a professional accountant's reputation, expulsion is a strong disciplinary measure. However, ethical violations can lead to even more adverse consequences for CPAs because of state and federal laws.
The state government issues a CPA's license to practice, usually through an organization known as the state board of accountancy. Since state laws governing the practice of accountancy typically include important parts of the AICPA Code, the Code thus gains legal enforceability. Consequently, ethical violations can result in the state's revoking a CPA's license to practice on a temporary or even permanent basis. Because a licensed CPA is also likely to belong to the AICPA and the state society of CPAs, investigations of ethics violations may be carried out jointly by the AICPA, the state society, and the state board of accountancy.
CPAs in public practice who audit the financial statements of public corporations are subject to federal securities laws and regulations, including the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which administers these laws, has broad powers to regulate corporations that sell their stock to the public. One important SEC requirement is that these corporations' financial statements be audited by an independent CPA. The SEC has the authority to establish and enforce auditing standards and procedures, including what constitutes independence for a CPA. The SEC has largely delegated standard setting to the private sector but retains oversight and enforcement responsibilities. In 1998 the SEC and the AICPA jointly announced the creation of the Independence Standards Board (ISB), a private-sector body whose mission is to improve auditor independence standards. In announcing the formation of the ISB, the SEC reaffirmed the crucial importance of the CPA's independence: "[M]aintaining the independence of auditors of financial statements is crucial to the credibility of financial reporting and, in turn, to the capital formation process" (SEC Release FRR-50,1998).
AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. (1988). Jersey City, NJ: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
IMA. (1997). Statements on Management Accounting: Objectives of Management Accounting, Statement No. 1B. New York: Institute of Management Accountants.
IIA Code of Ethics. (1988). Altamonte Springs, FL: Institute of Internal Auditors.
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