Date posted: 19/01/2018 10 min read

How to handle an ethical dilemma

If you’ve ever been faced with an ethical dilemma, you know how hard it can be to find a solution. But there’s help at hand, and it’s only a phone call away.

In Brief

  • Client confidentiality and conflicts of interest can cause ethical dilemmas.
  • The free Ethi-call ethics helpline can help professionals through difficult decisions that are troubling them.
  • Research shows that ethical organisations make higher profits, on average, than those with lower ethical standards.

By Tim Dean.

When an ethical dilemma strikes, it can be sudden and disorienting. Take the case of Simone, a Chartered Accountant with more than 15 years’ experience. A few months ago, she accepted a job at a new accounting practice. 

She has noticed her new boss is always on the lookout for ways to bend the rules and get clients benefits they don’t deserve. This week he has instructed her to complete a return that’s been manipulated in order to save the client hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax. She is fairly certain that what her boss is doing is illegal and could have her disqualified from her profession if she signs off on it. It is not sitting well with her.

As the primary breadwinner for her family, Simone needs her job to pay the mortgage and school fees. She and her husband have also recently begun renovations on their home. Simone is worried that if she does not do as her boss requests, she will lose her job. But if she files the return, then she could be disqualified as a Chartered Accountant.

Simone is not sure what to do. Should she finish the return? Should she raise her concerns? If so, with whom?

Places to turn

Simone does not really exist, but her case was constructed by experts at the Ethics Centre in Sydney out of several real-world problems. Such ethical dilemmas are not uncommon. When they strike, many people assume they have to solve them on their own, or confide only to a loved one or close friend.

At least one other source of help is available. The Ethics Centre – previously known as the St James Ethics Centre – has been providing its free Ethi-call ethics helpline for more than 20 years. It aims to help people through all sorts of difficult decisions that are troubling them. Callers come from every walk of life, ringing in with both professional and personal ethical issues, big and small.

“Ethi-call was established in response to people not having anywhere to turn to when they've got a difficult decision to make. Or if they do have somewhere to turn to, it’s not impartial, unbiased, or won’t take them through a rigorous process,” says Victoria Whitaker, Co-head of Advice and Education at The Ethics Centre.

Whitaker stresses that Ethi-call isn’t there to simply solve your problem for you. “It's not our place to judge what is right,” she says. “The aim of the call is to provide trusted guidance to someone with an ethical problem – to help them unpick the issues, and find clarity and a path forward. We don't tell the person what to do. We guide them using their own values, their own codes of conduct, their own rules.”

Ethical dimensions

Ethics is not a luxury. It’s something that permeates our lives, whether at work, at home or anywhere we interact with others. It underpins every choice we make. It’s the voice in our ear when we sense something breaches our standards of acceptable behaviour. It’s the feeling of unease when we’re asked to do something at odds with our values. It’s what we’re doing whenever we ask ourselves “what should I do?”

Most ethical dilemmas don’t have a single right or wrong answer. That’s what makes them a dilemma. Typically, a dilemma occurs when you have tension between two competing principles, such as honesty and loyalty to a friend. Or when a decision leads to multiple bad outcomes, such as it inevitably harming or disadvantaging two different people. Or when doing what you consider to be the right thing will put you at risk in some way.

Related: Help is there for a disciplinary hearing

How should accountants approach a disciplinary hearing? Dennis Robertson FCA shares insights from years of sitting on CA ANZ’s Australian Disciplinary Tribunal.

There are multiple domains of ethical dilemmas that can arise in your professional life. One of the most common is maintaining professional standards. Chartered Accountants have a Code of Ethics, and they have an ethical responsibility to uphold those standards. Some organisations will try to cut corners and bend or break the rules in order to obtain a commercial advantage, so you need to maintain those standards, even when there’s pressure to sidestep them.

Another common ethical dilemma comes from conflicts of interest. You’re required to exercise objectivity and impartiality in all of your work, but you inevitably build relationships with many of your clients. 

Sometimes they will reach out for help and you have to weigh up your natural tendency to help or protect those you care about against your professional obligations to lend them no undue favour.

A third type of dilemma surrounds confidentiality. Not only might you be privy to sensitive information that could help or harm others, but there are increasing commercial pressures to use private data in situations where it was not intended to be used.

Ultimately, ethics runs to the core of accounting, says Whitaker. “Accounting is a very well-established profession. The role or purpose of an accountant, as I see it, is to maintain trust within the organisation, particularly around the financial area but also increasingly around non-financial areas of performance. 

“It is really there to ensure that there can be trust in the accounts. The challenge that accountants face is when that trust is threatened. Typically, the codes of conduct in accounting are very specific, but there are still grey areas to be navigated, and the challenges around that.”

The price of ethics

You might ask: why be ethical at all? If you can bend the rules occasionally and derive a benefit for yourself, your business or your client, and your chances of being discovered are low, then what’s the harm? 

One answer is pragmatic: abundant research has shown that ethical organisations make higher profits, on average, than those with lower ethical standards. A strong commitment to ethics can lead to better employee retention, greater productivity, a better reputation with clients and customers, and a more positive relationship with vendors. And multiple studies have shown that consumers will pay more for products they know are ethically produced. 

A report by the Institute of Business Ethics in the UK found strong evidence to indicate that larger UK companies with codes of ethics – that is, those who are explicit about business ethics – out-perform, in financial and other indicators, those companies who say they do not have a code. Having a code of business ethics might, therefore, be said to be one hallmark of a well-managed company.”

What should I do?

Ethi-call’s approach is to bring the wealth of philosophical thinking on ethics to bear on the ethical issue and equip the caller to solve the problem themselves. “We get the caller to think about the facts of the situation, their assumptions, the different stakeholders and the customs or the rules that bind them. We get them to think through the different ethical perspectives,” says Whitaker.

In the process, the counsellor takes you through several different ethical approaches. One compares the outcomes of various actions, perhaps imagining how you’d feel about your decision years down the track. Another considers what kinds of rules or principles would justify your action and whether you’d want those rules to be applied in all similar circumstances, or you’re making an exception just this once. Yet another approach thinks about the function of an accountant and reflects on what expectations the role carries. Or you might consider what an ethic of care would recommend.

We get them to think about a range of different solutions that they might consider
Victoria Whitaker, Co-head of Advice and Education at The Ethics Centre

“It's like a kaleidoscope,” says Whitaker. “It's the same information, but as we look at it through the different ethical or philosophical lenses, it brings new light to the situation, and gets the caller to think about it in different ways.

“We get them to think about a range of different solutions that they might consider, and then we test their ideal situation against principles like the sunlight test, the universal principle, just to make sure they're comfortable with the decision they're going to make.”

Even engaging in this kind of exercise can improve your ethical thinking. We all have a conscience, and we are all (hopefully) intimately familiar with our relevant codes of ethics. But these are not enough to ensure good ethical judgements. Very few dilemmas are black and white, or have a single right answer. Even when we suspect there is a correct course of action, emotions and other attachments can make it difficult to pursue. The value of philosophy is that it gives us a framework to consider all the competing demands and apply various systems that can give us confidence in our decision. 

Remember too that if you’re faced with a challenging ethical situation at work or an important career decision, the Chartered Accountants Advisory Group (CAAG) offers free confidential guidance to help you choose a course of action. 

It’s always nice to know that when we’re confronted with an ethical dilemma, we don’t have to face it alone. Help is just a phone call away.

Related: Professional and Ethical support

Experienced CA ANZ members are available to provide guidance on professional practice issues, queries and ethical concerns

Related: CA Advisory Group

CAAG provides counselling and support for CAs facing ethical dilemmas or weighing career decisions.

Ethi-call is a free ethics counselling helpline. Find out more here.

Tim Dean is a philosopher and writer and an honorary associate at the University of Sydney.