A new approach to ethics education: Giving voice to values

By Tracy S. Manly, CPA, Ph.D., and Christina M. Ritsema, Ph.D.

Editor: Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA

Ethical conduct is critical to the accounting profession. The commitment to ethics education shows the profession takes the obligation to train its members in this area seriously. Most states require CPAs to complete continuing education related to ethics and professional standards to earn and renew their licenses. A few states (e.g., California, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and West Virginia) require candidates to complete college coursework in ethics before taking the Uniform CPA Examination. Clearly, accountants invest substantial time and effort to understand ethical behavior and comply with professional standards. This column provides a fresh perspective on an approach to ethics education.

New approach

Mary Gentile details this method of training in her book Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right (Yale University Press 2010). The Giving Voice to Values (GVV) approach differs from traditional ethics training in important ways. First, GVV emphasizes action over awareness and analysis. A significant amount of education in ethics presents students with a difficult dilemma and asks them to identify the issues and then use traditional philosophical approaches to analyze those issues. The goal of this exercise is to identify ideal solutions to the dilemmas. As important as identifying or knowing what the ideal solution is, knowing does not necessarily lead to doing or acting on one's values.

In contrast, GVV presents students with ethical dilemmas commonly faced in business, but assumes that in many cases they know what is right or ethical. Given this knowledge, students can then practice building the skills and confidence needed to act on their values.

GVV focuses on a learnable skill by helping students answer these questions: "If I were going to act on my values, what would I say? To whom? How would I act? How could I be more effective?" Certainly, this emphasis on action does not diminish the need for professionals who can identify and analyze ethical dilemmas. Instead, it adds a much-needed complement that is essential to promote more ethical work environments.

GVV recognizes that being able to speak up for one's values is the final step that must occur. The curriculum allows students to practice this through written responses as well as role-playing. The practice leads to preparedness that enables them as professionals to remain calm and competent. By normalizing the action of speaking up in difficult situations, the surprise effect of an ethical dilemma is diminished.

A second difference between GVV and other ethics training is its focus on pragmatists. Pragmatists are described as those who seek a balance between their moral ideals and material welfare. Pragmatists are contrasted with idealists (those who always attempt to act on their moral ideals) and opportunists (those who are driven primarily by their material welfare). Pragmatists desire to act on their values but do not want to be systematically disadvantaged by doing so. The idealists may not need ethical training, and the opportunists may never benefit from it. However, if the pragmatists can be trained and encouraged to speak up for their values, then strides can be made toward improving and promoting an ethical culture.

Values

GVV emphasizes acting on personal values instead of using the terms "ethics" or "morals." This distinction is important. The term "ethics" often implies a set of standards or rules that are externally generated and imposed upon members of a group (e.g., a professional society, a corporation, or an accounting firm). Speaking up and acting should come more naturally when an individual is doing so because of his or her internal values, which is what GVV promotes. Similarly, "morals" and "morality" suggest behaviors that are accepted as right by society. Encouraging someone to speak up for what the group believes is right is not appealing to a person's sense of acting in concert with his or her own beliefs.

Although the words clearly overlap, "values" imply standards that are held personally. When appealing to deeply held, personal values, finding the compulsion to act becomes more natural. It is natural to question what order can come from a system where each person is acting on his or her own set of values. The question is alleviated by evaluating research that indicates human values are often more alike than different (see Kidder, Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put to the Test (William Morrow 2005)). This work indicates values are widely shared across cultures and generations. Such values include honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. Individuals will extend this list in a variety of ways, but, as a core set of values, will likely agree with it.

Common rationalizations

GVV asks students to identify some of the common rationalizations that they might have for not acting on their values. This helps normalize the situation and causes students to realize that many ethical dilemmas are not unique but are different versions of dilemmas that have been successfully encountered before. Some of the common rationalizations include:

  • Expected or standard practice: "Everyone does this, so it's really standard practice. It's even expected."
  • Materiality: "The impact of this action is not material. It doesn't really hurt anyone."
  • Locus of responsibility: "This is not my responsibility; I'm just following orders here."
  • Locus of loyalty: "I know this isn't quite fair to the customer, but I don't want to hurt my reports/team/boss/company."

Recognizing that human nature often avoids conflict and desires to rationalize questionable behavior is an important part of normalizing the situation. Participants gain confidence in learning that their reactions are natural and common. Further, these rationalizations can be countered with predictable levers and responses that promote speaking for one's values and influencing those who might be against you.

Levers to combat common rationalizations

Powerful tools are available to help students rethink and reframe the ethical dilemma and rationalization for not voicing values. Each of the common arguments above can be countered by the following levers:

  • Expected or standard practice: This is often an exaggeration. Would you be comfortable if this were made public?
  • Materiality: Fraudulent activities do not depend upon the size of the transaction. Is the amount material to some stakeholders?
  • Locus of responsibility: This argument usually indicates that the individual is already uncomfortable with the situation.
  • Locus of loyalty: Loyalty can be framed multiple ways. Are you more loyal to your team by focusing on the current bonus or long-run reputation?

Other arguments to consider include:

  • Long run versus short run: Short-run results are not primary. What is at stake for both the individual and the community? What decision will really benefit both?
  • Organizational purpose: Your own personal purpose matters, too. What is your own sense of organizational and personal purpose?
  • Multiple rationalizations: How might presenting multiple responses persuade those who disagree with you?
  • Attract allies: You may not be in the minority. Who supports speaking up?
  • Cost considerations: How might identifying the costs to all parties, not just the most obvious ones, influence a decision?
Identifying personal strengths

GVV recognizes that speaking up for one's values is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are multiple approaches to voicing values when a conflict arises. Direct confrontation is often expected, but there are other ways to voice values such as using humor, data and analysis, persuasion and logic, metaphors, and storytelling. Students are encouraged to find a way to communicate that is most effective and comfortable for them based on their personality.

In addition to recognizing individual communication strengths, students are also encouraged to consider their own definition of purpose, risk preference, personal loyalties, and self-image. Playing to their strengths when acting on personally held values makes it more likely they will speak up in the future.

Practice and implementation

Finally, the probability of acting on ­values increases with practice as it normalizes value conflicts. Students confront scenarios in class for which they reflect on and develop a script. Then, they can role-play the scenarios for their peers. Other classmates listen and respond to the scripts for continued dialogue. As responses are evaluated and improved, students develop confidence. Further, practice causes them to continue to discover their strengths, become accustomed to facing conflicts in values, and feel a sense of being part of the majority of people who desire to bring their values into their work and professional lives.

The accounting profession holds a strong tradition of placing importance on ethics training. GVV provides a method that can be used with college students and working professionals to extend that education to focus on putting ethics into action. As more accountants become skilled at voicing their values, workplaces and the entire profession will benefit.   

 

Contributors

Tracy S. Manly is Albert Rogers Professor of Accounting in the Collins College of Business at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla. Christina M. Ritsema is a clinical professor in the accounting department of the College of Business at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif., and is the chair of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee. For more information about this column, please contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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