What You Need To Know About Accounting Ethics Before You Start Your Career


When you’re little, massaging the truth about what really happened to your homework is like a practiced art.

But it only takes one tough teacher to tell you that “the gerbil ate my paper” is not only an inadequate excuse, but it’s also just plain wrong.

Being able to tell right from wrong is instilled in everyone from an early age, but in accounting, ethics is much more than that, explains University of Waterloo accounting professor Sally Gunz.

“It calls for understanding of how problematic issues arise, how they can be recognized or avoided, how to analyze a problem to ensure you reach a decision that is sound and then developing the ability to speak out appropriately and effectively in defence of the decision you have reached,” says Sally, the Director of Waterloo’s Centre for Accounting Ethics.

“Lots of people can do good technical work. The value the student adds will be their sound judgement.” —Sally Gunz, Director, University of Waterloo’s Centre for Accounting Ethics

“By definition, ethical dilemmas are not easy to resolve.”

Accountants are given access to private information and therefore the nature of your job means that people expect you to be highly trustworthy, says Sally. With companies and clients investing more than just their trust in accountants, it is important that you have a strong sense of ethics beyond the basic wrong versus rights.

Ethics becomes more complicated when you move out of the classroom and into the boardroom, and encounter situations where what you know is right is not necessarily what you are being asked to do.

Sally says that this discrepancy is particularly problematic for accountants. She adds that it is essential for accountants to make sure that your work complies with the rules and practices of your profession first and your employer second.

But as a student or new hire, ethics can present a particularly difficult (and sometimes uncomfortable) quandary.

Students and new grads are unfamiliar with the working accounting world and, therefore, ethics issues such as these can present quite a challenge.

For instance, Sally says, if an employee claims that their weekly massage is a company expense because they just work so much better when they’re relaxed, the new hire dealing with those expense reports needs to question whether their time on the table is a legitimate expense and, if not, then it is the accountant’s responsibility to adjust the reports accordingly.

“The critical thing for students to understand is that what others do here should not influence what they do. They must not misrepresent on their expense reports,” says Sally. “Trust is the essential requirement of an accountant.”

And of course,  ethics extend beyond expense reports. Everything from maintaining confidentiality to maintaining your independence from an organization during an audit falls under the ethical code of accountants, and whether you’re a seasoned professional or a new hire, it is essential to do what’s right.

Figuring out what’s right isn’t always a simple task and with technology getting faster, students and new hires can often find themselves under pressure to figure things out on a tight deadline. However, Sally stresses that, “it is quite acceptable and is certainly best practice to buy time and think the issue through or seek advice.”

Solid ethics aren’t just the right thing to do – they’re also a valuable skill for students and new hires to develop early on in their career.

“Lots of people can do good technical work,” she says. “The value the student adds will be their sound judgement. This will develop with time but must always exist within the context of honesty and reliability.”

Have you ever been faced with an ethical dilemma at your accounting co-op, internship, summer entry level job?

Visit the Accounting Career Guide to learn more about careers in the accounting industry, and find student and entry level jobs from top accounting employers, including PwC, KPMG, Grant Thornton, BDO and more

Photo credit: white check mark on blue – acrylic on canvas by kylemac on Flickr

About the author

Ishani Nath is a proud McMaster alum, aspiring writer and current journalism grad student at Ryerson University. When she's not hammering out articles, she can usually be found on a patio or nestled on a couch trying to keep up with those crazy Kardashians. She hopes to one day have a job that makes her excited to get up each morning, or at least one that gives her free food. Intrigued? Enthralled? Learn more by following her on @ishaninath.