Educational institutions and employers often fall short in providing training and resources to support ethical professional conduct. Associations can fill that void for their field by empowering an ethics committee, offering ethics education, and promoting relevant research.
In theory, ethical decision-making should be straightforward—a manner of behavior that does not need to be formally taught in a school classroom or continuing education course. In practice, ethical misconduct occurs frequently, and each year the opportunities for unethical behavior increase as technology advances. Nearly half of employees (45 percent) observed at least one instance of misconduct in 2017, according to the 2019 Global Business Ethics Survey [PDF] published by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative.
This problem begs for a solution. The reality, though, is that many organizations do not have the bandwidth or resources to provide comprehensive ethics education and management tools for their employees, and this can contribute to an organizational climate that fosters unethical conduct. Take fraud, for example: According to a report from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, small businesses tend to have fewer antifraud controls—such as codes of conduct, hotlines, and employee support programs—and thus are more susceptible to fraud than larger businesses.
Another issue is the failure of some business and professional schools to sufficiently educate students on the importance of ethical behavior in their profession. According to a study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, business school students who received ethics instruction in their courses had a higher regard for ethics in business than students who did not.
Given that employers and educational institutions currently do not provide adequate ethics resources, associations have an opportunity and responsibility to develop professions that prioritize ethical behavior. Several steps are essential to promoting ethical behavior among an association’s members and an ethical culture in its profession.
Use Your Ethics Committee
Guiding members through professional ethics is a central responsibility for associations, and their ethics committees allow for members to receive peer-to-peer support. At the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), we invest in a Committee on Ethics, which runs an Ethics Helpline service that provides free, confidential guidance on ethical issues for our members and other professionals.
An ethics committee needs to uphold, enforce, and maintain an organization’s ethics code. IMA’s Statement of Ethical Professional Practice guides our ethics committee in its role as a resource to members.
Committees can recommend disciplinary action against members who fail to follow an association’s ethical business standards. For professionals to understand the significance of conducting business ethically, associations should have bodies that have the jurisdiction to encourage ethical business practices. In addition to overseeing the governing process around an ethics code, an organization’s ethics committee should be involved in raising awareness of the importance of ethical behavior, providing thought leadership in this area, and educating members.
Invest in Ethics Education
In cases where professionals enter their careers from school without ethics training, associations can fill this void by implementing their own educational services. Even when students receive adequate ethics education before entering the professional world, factors such as new technologies are rapidly changing responsibilities in the workplace, and continuing education has gained greater importance for current professionals.
Educational initiatives can extend beyond an association’s members. While associations can and should provide learning opportunities, such as webinars and continuing education courses, for their members, they can also provide valuable instruction to students.
IMA accomplishes this through its Carl Menconi Case Writing Competition, which gives educators and management accounting practitioners the opportunity to develop teaching cases focused on business ethics. This provides curricular material fit for use in undergraduate and graduate classes as well as continuing education programs.
Promote Ethics Research
An abundance of research is available on general business ethics, but associations have the opportunity to promote awareness of ethical business practices in their own fields by engaging in relevant research. Such initiatives require investment, which may include hiring staff to conduct or coordinate research in ethics and organizational governance. If members see that their association takes ethics seriously, they may be more likely to behave ethically in their own professional practices.
It is one thing for an association to say it has a culture that values ethics; it is another to develop and support that culture with concrete resources and services that promote ethical decision-making by members. As long as higher education institutions and employers fall short in providing ethics education and related management resources for students and employees, associations can assume greater responsibility in this area, thereby increasing their importance and influence in their fields.