ICAS President, Clive Bellingham CA: The importance of ethical values
New challenges facing the profession mean that accountancy’s future will, more than ever, stand or fall on its reputation for honesty and ethical practice, says ICAS President, Clive Bellingham CA
When I was 15, I found a part-time summer job picking potatoes in a field close to Kinghorn, in Fife, where I grew up. When I received my wage packet, I realised I had been overpaid. There was a brief moment of deliberation, in which I thought, “Wow! I’ve got more money than I should have – and that’s the farmer’s mistake, not mine.”
But that moment didn’t last. Instead I told my father I’d been overpaid and that I thought we should give it back. So my father drove me out to see the farmer – who I’d not yet met, as I’d been in the field all day, picking his spuds – who thanked me for my honesty and, in return, gave me an extra week’s work and a bag of potatoes. That was something of a mixed blessing – it was back-breaking work! More than 40 years later, though, I still feel good about doing the right thing and being rewarded for it.
I thought about that incident while in Australia recently. We often talk about professional integrity. The ICAS strapline is “Ethical leadership since 1854”. That doesn’t just apply when you’re faced with a serious challenge, a moment that can shape your career; often it’s about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and considering how they may perceive your actions (or inaction) in a given situation.
When ICAS takes on a new cohort of students we expect them to have certain values. Our aim is to ensure they apply those values professionally, so that whatever career path they choose, they know to act in the public interest. That is where we distinguish ourselves as a profession.
Yes, the CA qualification provides rigorous technical training – that’s obviously important – but what often makes the difference is how you apply that knowledge on a day-to-day basis. I was in Sydney when the story broke about a senior partner at PwC Australia who shared classified government information with his clients, while some of his colleagues, who should have spoken up, looked the other way. Their actions were beyond words.
Before I took retirement, I spent more than 30 years at PwC and I was always proud to say that I was a PwC partner. But in Sydney, I almost felt like I had to apologise for having been one for so long. None of us should have to do that because of the actions of a few individuals.
And we cannot let their selfish actions define us. Everything that ICAS and CAs stand for, everything that we strive to be, is underpinned by ethics. One of the reasons why this was such a big story in Australia is because the public are entitled to have high expectations of us. When a profession prides itself on its ethics, people are – rightly – angered when it fails such an elementary ethical test.
This would be a scandal at any time. But it is of particular importance now. I grew up in a world where accounting was about generating and assuring financial data. But now the profession is having to work out some of the key metrics for a firm’s strategic sustainability agenda, to gather all that non-financial data and link it to the financial data. As a consequence, it puts the profession in a much more exciting place to make a tangible difference in helping companies deliver accurate sustainability reports. But it also means that these reports must be trustworthy and reliable.
People are increasingly doubting whether they can believe the evidence of their own eyes. Generative AI is designed to solve any problem to the same standard as, if not better than, a human. I read a newspaper article recently which said the audit opinion aims to be true and fair, but might we get to the point with AI where it is true and correct. I don’t know the answer to that, but AI undoubtedly brings opportunities to provide greater levels of assurance. It’s something that we as a profession need to get to grips with, not least because we are in a position to add significant value through the use of AI.
By its very nature, AI will continue to evolve, but the buck still stops with the human, be that the CEO, a senior government official or the lead auditor. And it will always come back to doing the right thing. That means that, as well as guarding against the technology’s potentially damaging impacts on social mobility, we must also ensure extra care is taken before AI is given the authority to act autonomously.
Every indicator suggests we are entering exciting, but testing, times for the accountancy profession. And the lessons I learned all those decades ago about integrity and following the ethical path will matter even more in the future than they ever did in that potato field.
For more resources, read the ICAS Code of Ethics