Pinpointing and overcoming unethical behavior as a licensed professional

Posted on Thursday, April 25, 2019 by Abby Draper

Fast-moving teal and red trolley.

By Abigail Draper, OSCPA communication and engagement manager

There is an ethical thought experiment called the Trolley Problem in which you are asked to picture yourself on the edge of trolley tracks. Then, you notice a trolley is coming toward you and going very fast. As it nears you, you realize it has lost control of its breaks and can’t stop. You can’t do much, except there is a switch next to you and you can pull it to change the path of the trolley. On the track the trolley is currently on, there are five workers at the end who are going to be killed if you don’t pull the switch. If you do pull the switch, you will divert the trolley onto a track where one person is working and will be killed. Which do you choose? After being proposed with this scenario, most people will pull the switch.

Then, there’s a second scenario. You are again at the tracks, but you are standing above them on a footbridge. The trolley is speeding right under you and it’s going to kill those five works at the end of the tracks and there’s nothing you can do, except you notice there is a very large man standing next to you. If you push that man off the bridge and into the path of the trolley, he’s big enough that he would stop the trolley, but it would kill the man. Of course, in this situation, almost nobody chooses to push the man.

The idea behind this is distance. Pulling the switch seems like indirectly killing someone to save five people, but if you push a man, then it’s murder. Distance plays a part in a lot of unethical decision making in the real world.

Dr. Toby Groves, CPA, mentioned the Trolley Problem when discussing ethical versus unethical decision making and what it has to do with the accounting profession.

Groves is an expert on this topic because he has a doctorate in psychology with a focus on ethical decision making, but also because he previously made an unethical decision that sent him to prison.

“I think I am the only felon — ” he stopped and laughed, “it’s still bizarre for my name and felon to be in the same sentence — the only former felon that was approved by the Board of Accountancy in Ohio to teach ethics under their state-specific ethics program.”

Groves said the same theory of distance applies to CPAs and auditors. He said there have been studies that show if the CPA knows the client, then they come up with different numbers than they would have if they didn’t know the client. This shouldn’t happen.

How can we overcome unethical behavior? Groves says the first step is having an interest in overcoming it. He said if you realize you are doing something unethical, you have to be willing to learn from it instead of becoming defensive about it.

Groves believes the pinnacle of ethics is that “it’s not about our ego, it’s about finding the truth and doing what’s right.” He believes having a growth mindset is essential for making more ethical decisions.

Why is overcoming or avoiding unethical behavior especially important for CPAs? “CPAs are in a trust position, especially when it comes to financial matters. People are trusting that whatever the CPA comes up with is true and correct and right. Everything they do — somebody else is relying on.”

When everything is unclear and we have no idea what to do, Groves said, that’s when we count on licensed professionals.

“CPAs, attorneys, all kinds of licensed professionals that are in a trust position are held to higher ethical standards, and they should be.”

To hear more from Dr. Groves, visit the Dayton Accounting Show on May 23 where he will be speaking.

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