The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct is a 186-page document which contains the Principles of Professional Conduct that accountants strive to practice by. The Principals require a responsibility to exercise professional and moral judgment, a practitioner to serve the public interest, to act with integrity, to act with objectivity and independence, and exercise due care. These seem clear; until a situation arises that sends the practitioner scrambling for clarification (for example the Code has 76 pages of Independence interpretations due to the almost limitless situations that can occur).
Accounting ethical dilemmas are more common than you might think. I don’t perform Attest services, so Independence is not an issue. Common ethical dilemmas, especially for solo practitioners that are dependent on a few larger clients, can be:
- Over billing for hours not worked
- Decreasing productivity to bill more hours
- Taking commissions for referrals (investments, payroll, insurance)
- Recommending unnecessary services
- Accepting clients who may present a conflict of interest
I strive for long term client relationships, it’s a win-win for both parties. A Company’s prosperity can be directly linked to a successful professional/client relationship (and visa versa I hope). So I’ve found a good rule of thumb to be – what’s good for the client is good for me.
None of the items I’ve listed above are good for the client. Would over billing make or break a Company? No, but what if all vendors and consultants billed unethically? Then sure, that could bring down a Company. And there goes that long-term relationship I’m striving for.
For arguments sake, let’s say one were to round up billings. How much? Just once, or indefinitely? This leads down the slippery of slope of rationalization (a major fraud risk). The company wouldn’t notice X amount, or can handle Y amount with no downside. And no one will find out, so what’s the harm? And from there things can quickly get out of hand. In my experience, once people taste that easy money, there is no quenching that thirst.
So I strive to practice while keeping in mind, what’s good for the client is good for me. Now, like everything in life, there are exceptions. If acting in a client’s best interest is detrimental to my Practice or to another client, or would require me to violate the Code of Professional Conduct, or is illegal, that’s another matter. But the rule of thumb simplifies that 186-page document enough that I can practice by it without getting bogged down in the details.