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Facing ethical dilemmas

By Bryony Clear Hill, Associate Manager — Ethics Awareness, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

Today, 16 October 2019, is Global Ethics Day! Every year on the third Wednesday in October, organisations across the world celebrate ethical conduct by running events, producing new resources and spreading the word that the ethical choice is the right choice. 

Here at CIMA, we’ve been thinking about how our members and students should react when facing an ethical dilemma at work. You might be asked to do something you’re not sure about, or you could seeing someone doing something that seems wrong.  

It would be great if the right decision was always clear-cut and easy, but that’s just not how the real world works. You will likely face a dilemma at some point in your career where the best option isn’t obvious.

When that happens, how should you react? What steps should you take when the path isn’t clear?

We have a few thoughts which can help you out: 

Keep calm and check your facts.
It can be stressful when you’re not sure of the best way to act. Take a few deep breaths and check your facts. Think through the situation, and don’t rush into any decisions.   

Ask yourself these key questions.
First, are your actions legal? If not, then don’t do it! If you know someone else is doing something illegal, report it. Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it is ethical. Whilst it might be technically legal to exploit tax loopholes to reduce what a company pays, many would consider it unethical. 

Second, how would it look if the situation was printed in a newspaper? Or if you had to tell someone in your family what had happened? This can be a useful way of seeing the bigger picture.

Lastly, what would the impact be if everyone in the organisation acted in the same way, or this action happened regularly? For example, you might feel like ignoring someone moving some payments forward a few weeks to get them into this month’s books is a small action with no consequences. But if it happens repeatedly, it could add up to a big problem. 

Consider the CIMA Code of Ethics.
The CIMA Code of Ethics guides you as a professional management accountant and applies to all our members and students. Consider which fundamental principles are affected by the ethical dilemma. Then, take a look through the rest of the Code and our Ethics pages to see if there is more helpful guidance there.  

Your company may also have a code of ethics or conduct, and there might be specific company policies that can guide you.  

Talk it through.
You don’t have to decide what to do on your own! Talking to someone is important when deciding the best course of action.  

It might be a colleague, or perhaps your line manager or another manager in your team. Many larger companies will have specific ethics and compliance departments that may be able to guide you.  

You can also call the CIMA Ethics helpline or send us an email, and we’ll be able to point you towards helpful sections of the CIMA Code of Ethics.  

Act decisively. 
The actions you will need to take depend on the situation. Some common necessary actions include:

  • Discussing the situation with a manager. You can frame the discussion around wanting to do the best for the company — this can help managers understand the bigger picture.
  • Refusing to engage if you are asked to do something you’re not comfortable with. You can use sections of the CIMA Code of Ethics or internal company policies to support this.
  • Speaking up or whistleblowing, either internally within your company or externally. Protect can offer free guidance on whistleblowing, and the IBE Speak Up Toolkit can answer some common questions about speaking up. 
  • Reporting to the police or relevant authorities if you suspect a law has been broken. You might want to seek legal advice if you’re unsure about the law. 
  • Taking yourself out of the situation. Ultimately, this might mean you need to walk away. 

Ethics month resources:

Ethical dilemmas are difficult and it can be stressful when you don’t know what to do or feel pressured into doing something you’re not comfortable with. But here at CIMA, we’re here to help you! 

Take a look through our Ethics checklist, and watch a video about handling ethical dilemmas. Keep an eye out in our Ethics Month page to catch all our latest content!

There’s still time to sign up for our Ethics challenge, where our Facebook Messenger chatbot will send you quizzes and resources. Sign up now