Tips for teaching accounting ethics

Cover ethics side-by-side with technical topics.
By Lea Hart

Considering accountants deal with the intimate financial details of individuals and businesses, it’s important that they abide by strict ethical standards.

“Ethics are the ‘why’ before the ‘how’ — why we do accounting; why accounting is important to society.” said Jeff Hillard, CPA, DM, associate professor of accounting at Stevenson University.

He said that the “why” of accounting is often overlooked in favor of the more technical aspects of the profession: “Honestly, I think that is the big, unanswered question that we skip; we just start talking about how you do it.”

Yet teaching ethics can be a challenge. For one thing, many faculty members have so much technical content to cover that there’s not much room in their syllabuses for lessons dedicated solely to ethics. For another, some faculty members find ethics uncomfortable to teach, especially if they don’t regularly delve into the topic.

Accounting faculty members shared the following advice about teaching ethics, including some practical ways to incorporate ethics lessons into your classes.

Address discomfort about teaching ethics. Patrick Kelly, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Providence College, said that faculty members can overcome some of their qualms about teaching ethics by attending professional development events that address the subject, such as the Engaging Students in Accounting Ethics Education session at the American Accounting Association’s annual meeting.

Accounting departments may also consider asking a faculty member who is passionate about ethics to lead a departmentwide implementation of teaching ethics across courses, said Mary Kay Copeland, CPA, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Use cases and mini-cases that apply to your curriculum. Ethics cases and mini-cases can serve the dual purpose of teaching technical topics while also giving students an opportunity to think about ethical issues and debate what’s right and wrong, Copeland said. In her accounting information systems course, for example, Copeland uses the Phar-Mor fraud case from the early 1990s. She first asks students to discuss the case in class — talking about who was to blame and what could have been done differently — and then write about it on their own.

Cover ethics early in your classes, rather than later. Hillard said it’s important to cover ethics materials early in the semester. That will make it easier to incorporate the subject later as you progress through the coursework, he said.

“I typically cover ethics upfront in the first class, and then go back to it as often as possible and apply it to each chapter,” he said.

Include ethics in graded assessments. Hillard said grading students on ethics questions ensures that they will focus on the topic and understand its importance. He recommended having students give written answers to ethics questions on tests (as opposed to multiple choice), which will require them to show they really understand the concept.

Discuss current events that relate to ethics. “In any given semester, there are going to be ethical issues that make it into the media,” Kelly said — and many of them have accounting implications. Plus, students enjoy discussing current events and real-world examples, he said.

Let students teach one another and save classroom time. Ethics topics can be covered using less classroom time if students teach one another, Kelly said. He teaches a semester-long ethics course; however, his method could be applied to other courses as well. In his course, each student is assigned a different case in which someone faced an ethical challenge. In some of those cases, the person did the right thing, while in others, the person did not. Then, students present to the class about their cases.

“This past semester, for example, I had 26 students,” Kelly said. “With these in-class presentations, they not only learned about their specific case, but they heard 25 other examples of people who did and didn’t do the right thing. This provided many different examples of how the course material could be applied.”

Emphasize the positive. Both Hillard and Kelly espoused a positive approach to teaching ethics.

“Ethics in general, and particularly in accounting, has traditionally been all about learning the rules of ‘thou shalt not,’” Hillard said. “Turn it around, and look at the benefits of ethical behavior.”

Rather than teaching students only that a disregard for ethics can result in committing fraud or going to jail, also show them how adhering to ethical standards builds trust with clients and contributes to a successful business, he said.

Kelly regularly tells his students about positive role models, such as Cynthia Cooper, an internal auditor and whistleblower who, with her team, unearthed a multibillion-dollar fraud at WorldCom in the early 2000s.

“I want my students to have an appreciation for people doing the right thing,” he said.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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