Restoring public trust in the accountancy profession

Professor Catriona Paisey’s research seeks to understand what it means to be an accounting professional at a time of increased public scrutiny. Her research has underpinned changes to Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) policy and practice via bold new ethics guidance, which supports speaking up and whistleblowing.

The research

Historically, professional accountancy bodies have stressed competence, ethical practices and serving the public interest as constituents of their professional status.

However, the financial scandals of the early twenty-first century resulted in widespread mistrust of the profession.

Paisey’s research has focused on the ethical dilemmas faced by chartered accountants, including how they handle them and the support they receive.

As part of this programme of research, 48 interviews were conducted, primarily with ICAS members, to gain a deeper understanding of interviewees’ real-life ethical dilemmas and actions, and in particular their responses to those dilemmas.

The research report concludes that there is a need for more widespread use of speak up/whistleblowing policies and support for chartered accountants who face ethical dilemmas, including enhanced networking and ethical mentoring arrangements.

The impact

Professor Paisey is a member of the Council and Ethics Board of ICAS—a professional body of more than 23,000 members and 3,000 students who work in over 100 countries around the world.

The reports of Paisey’s research on the ethical experiences of chartered accountants, the dilemmas they face, and the support they would like to receive, were launched at events held by ICAS in London and Edinburgh in 2019.

The research findings were further disseminated to all ICAS members via an article in its monthly magazine CA Today, thus increasing member awareness of ethics dilemmas.

ICAS is currently drafting plans to implement one of the research report’s key recommendations, relating to the need for a system of ethics mentoring to support members with ethical dilemmas.

Other initiatives, which directly stem from the research, include a focus on bullying via a webinar and associated guidance, and the establishment of an ethics mentoring facility to support members with ethical dilemmas.

These changes support a culture in which accountants feel able to speak up where they have concerns, which is vital to ensuring public trust and the protection of the public interest.