Faculty Spotlight

Professor Spiceland on Training Accountants to be Ethical

Associate Professor Charlene Spiceland developed ACCT 325-01: Accounting and Business Ethics. This course incorporates a behavioral perspective into ethical decision-making that encourages students to identify with their values and learn how to voice them in the workplace when conflicts arise and ethical dilemmas exist. This is a required course for accounting majors and is also a good ethics foundation course for all business majors. We talked with Spiceland about the importance of this course.

Can you tell us about the ethics course you developed?

The state board requires that accounting students take an ethics course. In this course, we study cases of fraud that illustrate why we have certain rules around accounting. Some issues are specific to corporate governance and how management at the top has to set the ethical policy for the corporation. With that in mind, I chose a book focused on accounting and business ethics, Ethical Obligations and Decision Making in Accounting, by Mintz. It is case-based while covering all the principles and theory behind ethics.

The course that I teach is both synchronous and asynchronous, entirely online. Even the face-to-face meetings are online, using Moodle through Simmons Online. It’s 2 credits so it’s not extremely taxing. So far the feedback from students has been positive. There are no prerequisites, you don’t have to be a business major to register — it’s open to all undergraduate students in the Colleges of the Fenway — and it will be offered every fall.

Why a course dedicated entirely to ethics in business?

While we incorporate ethics in all of our classes, I don’t think we can emphasize it enough. When I was working in the corporate world, I was asked to make decisions involving accounting discrepancies and actual fraud. When I graduated from college, I never imagined that I would be asked to make unethical and illegal accounting decisions. I left two jobs because I refused to work in organizations that put profits above ethics and accounting policies. I was viewed as not being a “team player” within those organizations, and I knew many people who agreed to look the other way. 

Students need to be prepared for their future, for that moment when they will have to decide whether to go along with the majority, or step out and say no, this is wrong. In many of the cases we review, the people involved knew what they were being asked to do was wrong but didn’t feel they could go against the administration. It’s far easier to go along. It’s hard to stand up for what you know is wrong.

What are the potential consequences of not speaking up?

Your reputation as a professional and ethical person is at risk. If you are working for a company that does not adhere to ethical business practices, it’s your responsibility to speak up or leave. When a company acquires the reputation of being unethical, their accountants also acquire the reputation, and they will have difficulty finding positions in other companies. Beyond their reputation, they can lose their CPA license, be required to pay large fines, and even go to jail.

In Tennessee I was appointed to the State Board of Accountancy, which oversees the CPAs licensed in that state. Anyone caught committing accounting fraud, or reported by the public for unethical behavior, is called to report to the state board to answer the complaint. It was amazing the number of people who worked so hard to get their license but were somehow swayed and failed to recognize the value of accounting ethics or following the law. Most of the time it was the result of greed.

What is unique about this course?

The course is specific to accounting and corporate governance. In philosophy, we have theory of ethics and biomedical ethics courses. This course reviews theory, but it focuses primarily on business and accounting situations that occur in the real world. Topics include organization ethics, corporate governance, professional judgement in accounting, fraud and legal obligations, and ethical leadership. We discuss cases involving real situations, why they occurred, what the result was, and how the situation might be prevented in the future.

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