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The reality of workplace ethical pressures

Written on Apr 27, 2023

By Jessica Salerno-Shumaker, OSCPA senior content manager  

When it comes to making the right decision in an ethical dilemma, one researcher said it’s much trickier in the real world than reading about it in a case study.  

“We absolutely think that we know how we're going to behave, but in so many cases, that turns out to not be true,” said Toby Groves, researcher and founder of Cognificent. “We can’t always accurately predict what our decision will be in certain situations.”  

Groves is a presenter at the upcoming CORECon Core Skills Conference where he will cover “Beyond the Code: Ethics in the Real World,” a topic that all in the profession could benefit from as accountants work as trusted business advisors with an honorable reputation to uphold.  

Because of the strategic role many CPAs play in their organizations, they have to understand and spot ethical issues. But Groves said this can be tricky when considering how much CPAs already have on their plate, and says he regularly hears from professionals about how much stress they’re under.  

“There are a lot of outside pressures to ignore small problems, or sometimes even large problems,” Groves said. “And that's an aspect of the real world that's very disappointing.” 

Keeping clients and superiors happy is a serious priority for accountants, and that can sometimes lead to unethical decision-making. Groves said it’s crucial in those moments to step back and ask about the long-term result of that decision. The future can seem abstract so people instead choose to focus on the reality of the current situation, but asking yourself what the repercussions could be in the long run can help. 

“If it's on your mind, then it's worthy of bringing up to somebody else so that you're not dealing with it alone,” Groves said. “A really important aspect of this is to talk to somebody else about it, and bounce ideas off of each other instead of just looking at a rulebook.”  

While rulebooks are valuable, he said, they can sometimes work against ethical reasoning. These codes of ethics could focus too much on rules and not enough on empathy and human nature, which is a crucial part of ethical decision-making. 

“The way we're traditionally taught ethics doesn't help in the real world the way we thought it would,” Groves said. “And if you're working in a rules-based environment, it makes it even more difficult for you to discern the ethical components of a situation.”  

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