LEARNING OBJECTIVE 4
Understand the importance of upholding ethical standards.
A series of major financial scandals involving Enron, Tyco International, HealthSouth, Adelphia Communications, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Rite Aid, and other companies have raised deep concerns about ethics in business. The managers and companies involved in these scandals have suffered mightilyfrom huge fines to jail terms and financial collapse. And the recognition that ethical behavior is absolutely essential for the functioning of our economy has led to numerous regulatory changessome of which we will discuss in a later section on corporate governance. But why is ethical behavior so important? This is not a matter of just being nice. Ethical behavior is the lubricant that keeps the economy running. Without that lubricant, the economy would operate much less efficientlyless would be available to consumers, quality would be lower, and prices would be higher.
Take a very simple example. Suppose that dishonest farmers, distributors, and grocers knowingly tried to sell wormy apples as good apples and that grocers refused to take back wormy apples. What would you do as a consumer of apples? Go to another grocer? But what if all grocers acted this way? What would you do then? You would probably either stop buying apples or you would spend a lot of time inspecting apples before buying them. So would everyone else. Now notice what has happened. Because farmers, distributors, and grocers could not be trusted, sales of apples would plummet and those who did buy apples would waste a lot of time inspecting them minutely. Everyone loses. Farmers, distributors; and grocers make less money; consumers enjoy fewer apples; and consumers waste time looking for worms. In other words, without fundamental trust in the integrity of businesses, the economy would operate much less efficiently. James Surowiecki summed up this point as follows:
[F]lourishing economies require a healthy level of trust in the reliability and fairness of everyday transactions. If you assumed every potential deal was a rip-off or that the products you were buying were probably going to be lemons, then very little business would get done. More important, the costs of the transactions that did take place would be exorbitant, since youd have to do enormous work to investigate each deal and youd have to rely on the threat of legal action to enforce every contract. For an economy to prosper, whats needed is not a Pollyannaish faith that everyone else has your best interests at heartcaveat emptor [buyer beware] remains an important truthbut a basic confidence in the promises and commitments that people make about their products and services.11
NO TRUSTNO ENRON
Jonathan Karpoff reports on a particularly important, but often overlooked, aspect of the Enron debacle:
As we know, some of Enrons reported profits in the late 1990s were pure accounting fiction. But the firm also had legitimate businesses and actual assets. Enrons most important businesses involved buying and selling electricity and other forms of energy. [Using Enron as an intermediary, utilities that needed power bought energy from producers with surplus generating capacity.] Now when an electric utility contracts to buy electricity, the managers of the utility want to make darned sure that the seller will deliver the electrons exactly as agreed, at the contracted price. There is no room for fudging on this because the consequences of not having the electricity when consumers switch on their lights are dire….
This means that the firms with whom Enron was trading electricity … had to trust Enron. And trust Enron they did, to the tune of billions of dollars of trades every year. But in October 2001, when Enron announced that its previous financial statements overstated the firms profits, it undermined such trust. As everyone recognizes, the announcement caused investors to lower their valuations of the firm. Less understood, however, was the more important impact of the announcement; by revealing some of its reported earnings to be a house of cards, Enron sabotaged its reputation. The effect was to undermine even its legitimate and (previously) profitable operations that relied on its trustworthiness.
This is why Enron melted down so fast. Its core businesses relied on the firms reputation. When that reputation was wounded, energy traders took their business elsewhere….
Energy traders lost their faith in Enron, but what if no other company could be trusted to deliver on its commitments to provide electricity as contracted? In that case, energy traders would have nowhere to turn. As a direct result, energy producers with surplus generating capacity would be unable to sell their surplus power. As a consequence, their existing customers would have to pay higher prices. And utilities that did not have sufficient capacity to meet demand on their own would have to build more capacity, which would also mean higher prices for their consumers. So a general lack of trust in companies such as Enron would ultimately result in overinvestment in energy-generating capacity and higher energy prices for consumers.
Source: Jonathan M. Karpoff, Regulation vs. Reputation in Preventing Corporate Fraud, UW Business, Spring 2002, pp. 2830
Thus, for the good of everyoneincluding profit-making companiesit is vitally important that business be conducted within an ethical framework that builds and sustains trust.
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) of the United States has adopted an ethical code called the Statement of Ethical Professional Practice that describes in some detail the ethical responsibilities of management accountants. Even though the code was specifically developed for management accountants, it has much broader application.
Code of Conduct for Management Accountants
The IMAs Statement of Ethical Professional Practice consists of two parts that are presented in full in Exhibit 1-9 (page 22). The first part provides general guidelines for ethical behavior. In a nutshell, a management accountant has ethical responsibilities in four broad areas: first, to maintain a high level of professional competence; second, to treat sensitive matters with confidentiality; third, to maintain personal integrity; and fourth, to disclose information in a credible fashion. The second part of the code specifies what should be done if an individual finds evidence of ethical misconduct. We recommend that you stop at this point and read all of Exhibit 1-9.
|IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice|
Members of IMA shall behave ethically. A commitment to ethical professional practice includes: overarching principles that express our values, and standards that guide our conduct.
IMAs overarching ethical principles include: Honesty, Fairness, Objectivity, and Responsibility. Members shall act in accordance with these principles and shall encourage others within their organizations to adhere to them.
A members failure to comply with the following standards may result in disciplinary action.
Each member has a responsibility to:
Maintain an appropriate level of professional expertise by continually developing knowledge and skills.
Perform professional duties in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and technical standards.
Provide decision support information and recommendations that are accurate, clear, concise, and timely.
Recognize and communicate professional limitations or other constraints that would preclude responsible judgment or successful performance of an activity.
Each member has a responsibility to:
|1.||Keep information confidential except when disclosure is authorized or legally required.|
|2.||Inform all relevant parties regarding appropriate use of confidential information. Monitor subordinates activities to ensure compliance.|
|3.||Refrain from using confidential information for unethical or illegal advantage.|
Each member has a responsibility to:
|1.||Mitigate actual conflicts of interest. Regularly communicate with business associates to avoid apparent conflicts of interest. Advise all parties of any potential conflicts.|
|2.||Refrain from engaging in any conduct that would prejudice carrying out duties ethically.|
|3.||Abstain from engaging in or supporting any activity that might discredit the profession.|
Each member has a responsibility to:
|1.||Communicate information fairly and objectively.|
|2.||Disclose all relevant information that could reasonably be expected to influence an intended users understanding of the reports, analyses, or recommendations.|
|3.||Disclose delays or deficiencies in information, timeliness, processing, or internal controls in conformance with organization policy and/or applicable law.
RESOLUTION OF ETHICAL CONFLICT
In applying the Standards of Ethical Professional Practice, you may encounter problems identifying unethical behavior or resolving an ethical conflict. When faced with ethical issues, you should follow your organizations established policies on the resolution of such conflict. If these policies do not resolve the ethical conflict, you should consider the following courses of action:
|1.||Discuss the issue with your immediate supervisor except when it appears that the supervisor is involved. In that case, present the issue to the next level. If you cannot achieve a satisfactory resolution, submit the issue to the next management level. If your immediate superior is the chief executive officer or equivalent, the acceptable reviewing authority may be a group such as the audit committee, executive committee, board of directors, board of trustees, or owners. Contact with levels above the immediate superior should be initiated only with your superiors knowledge, assuming he or she is not involved. Communication of such problems to authorities or individuals not employed or engaged by the organization is not considered appropriate, unless you believe there is a clear violation of the law.|
|2.||Clarify relevant ethical issues by initiating a confidential discussion with an IMA Ethics Counselor or other impartial advisor to obtain a better understanding of possible courses of action.|
|3.||Consult your own attorney as to legal obligations and rights concerning the ethical conflict.|
The IMAs code of conduct provides sound, practical advice for management accountants and managers. Most of the rules in the code are motivated by a very practical considerationif these rules were not generally followed in business, then the economy and all of us would suffer. Consider the following specific examples of the consequences of not abiding by the code:
- Suppose employees could not be trusted with confidential information. Then top managers would be reluctant to distribute such information within the company and, as a result, decisions would be based on incomplete information and operations would deteriorate.
- Suppose employees accepted bribes from suppliers. Then contracts would tend to go to suppliers who pay the highest bribes rather than to the most competent suppliers. Would you like to fly in aircraft whose wings were made by the subcontractor who paid the highest bribe? Would you fly as often? What would happen to the airline industry if its safety record deteriorated due to shoddy workmanship on contracted parts and assemblies?
- Suppose the presidents of companies routinely lied in their annual reports and financial statements. If investors could not rely on the basic integrity of a companys financial statements, they would have little basis for making informed decisions. Suspecting the worst, rational investors would pay less for securities issued by companies and may not be willing to invest at all. As a consequence, companies would have less money for productive investmentsleading to slower economic growth, fewer goods and services, and higher prices.
As these examples suggest, if ethical standards were not generally adhered to, everyone would sufferbusinesses as well as consumers. Essentially, abandoning ethical standards would lead to a lower standard of living with lower-quality goods and services, less to choose from, and higher prices. In short, following ethical rules such as those in the Statement of Ethical Professional Practice is absolutely essential for the smooth functioning of an advanced market economy.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
Don Keough, a retired Coca-Cola executive, recalls that, In my time, CFOs [Chief Financial Officers] were basically tough, smart, and mean. Bringing good news wasnt their function. They were the truth-tellers. But that had changed by the late 1990s in some companies. Instead of being truth-tellers, CFOs became corporate spokesmen, guiding stock analysts in their quarterly earnings estimatesand then making sure those earnings estimates were beaten using whatever means necessary, including accounting tricks and in some cases outright fraud. But does the buck stop there?
A survey of 179 CFOs published in May 2004 showed that only 38% of those surveyed believed that pressure to use aggressive accounting techniques to improve results had lessened relative to three years earlier. And 20% of those surveyed said the pressure had increased over the past three years. Where did the respondents say the pressure was coming from? Personal greed, weak boards of directors, and overbearing Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) topped the list. Who is to blame? Perhaps that question is less important than focusing on what is neededgreater personal integrity and less emphasis on meeting quarterly earnings estimates.
Sources: Jeremy Kahn, The Chief Freaked Out Officer, Fortune, December 9, 2002, pp. 197202, and Don Durfee, After the Scandals: Its Better (and Worse) Than You Think, CFO, May 2004, p. 29.
Company Codes of Conduct
Many companies have adopted formal ethical codes of conduct. These codes are generally broad-based statements of a companys responsibilities to its employees, its customers, its suppliers, and the communities in which the company operates. Codes rarely spell out specific dos and donts or suggest proper behavior in a specific situation. Instead, they give broad guidelines. For example, Exhibit 1-10 (page 24) shows Johnson & Johnsons code of ethical conduct, which it refers to as a Credo. Johnson & Johnson created its Credo in 1943 and today it is translated into 36 languages. Johnson & Johnson surveys its employees every two to three years to obtain their impressions of how well the company adheres to its ethical principles. If the survey reveals shortcomings, corrective actions are taken.12
|The Johnson & Johnson Credo|
Johnson & Johnson Credo
We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality. We must constantly strive to reduce our costs in order to maintain reasonable prices. Customers orders must be serviced promptly and accurately. Our suppliers and distributors must have an opportunity to make a fair profit.
We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world. Everyone must be considered as an individual. We must respect their dignity and recognize their merit. They must have a sense of security in their jobs. Compensation must be fair and adequate, and working conditions clean, orderly and safe. We must be mindful of ways to help our employees fulfill their family responsibilities. Employees must feel free to make suggestions and complaints. There must be equal opportunity for employment, development and advancement for those qualified. We must provide competent management, and their actions must be just and ethical.
We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well. We must be good citizenssupport good works and charities and bear our fair share of taxes. We must encourage civic improvements and better health and education. We must maintain in good order the property we are privileged to use, protecting the environment and natural resources.
Our final responsibility is to our stockholders. Business must make a sound profit. We must experiment with new ideas. Research must be carried on, innovative programs developed and mistakes paid for. New equipment must be purchased, new facilities provided and new products launched. Reserves must be created to provide for adverse times. When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.
It bears emphasizing that establishing a code of ethical conduct, such as Johnson & Johnsons Credo, is meaningless if employees, and in particular top managers, do not adhere to it when making decisions. If top managers continue to say, in effect, that they will only be satisfied with bottom-line results and will accept no excuses, they are building a culture that implicitly coerces employees to engage in unethical behavior to get ahead. This type of unethical culture is contagious. In fact, one survey showed that [t]hose who engage in unethical behavior often justify their actions with one or more of the following reasons: (1) the organization expects unethical behavior, (2) everyone else is unethical, and/or (3) behaving unethically is the only way to get ahead.13
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO WORK?
Nearly all executives claim that their companies maintain high ethical standards; however, not all executives walk the talk. Employees usually know when top executives are saying one thing and doing another and they also know that these attitudes spill over into other areas. Working in companies where top managers pay little attention to their own ethical rules can be extremely unpleasant. Several thousand employees in many different organizations were asked if they would recommend their company to prospective employees. Overall, 66% said that they would. Among those employees who believed that their top management strives to live by the companys stated ethical standards, the number of recommenders jumped to 81%. But among those who believed top management did not follow the companys stated ethical standards, the number was just 21%.
Source: Jeffrey L. Seglin, Good for Goodness Sake, CFO, October 2002, pp. 7578.
Codes of Conduct on the International Level
The Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, issued by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), governs the activities of all professional accountants throughout the world, regardless of whether they are practicing as independent CPAs, employed in government service, or employed as internal accountants.14
In addition to outlining ethical requirements in matters dealing with integrity and objectivity, resolution of ethical conflicts, competence, and confidentiality, the IFACs code also outlines the accountants ethical responsibilities in other matters such as those relating to taxes, independence, fees and commissions, advertising and solicitation, the handling of monies, and cross-border activities. Where cross-border activities are involved, the IFAC ethical requirements must be followed if they are stricter than the ethical requirements of the country in which the work is being performed.
Problem 1-4, 1-6, 1-7
11 James Surowiecki, A Virtuous Cycle, Forbes, December 23, 2002, pp. 248256. Reprinted by Permission of Forbes Magazine©2006 Forbes Inc.
13 Michael K. McCuddy, Karl E. Reichardt, and David Schroeder, Ethical Pressures: Fact or Fiction? Management Accounting 74, no. 10, pp. 5761.
14 A copy of this code can be obtained on the International Federation of Accountants website www.ifac.org.