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Where Does Ethical Governance Come From Business Essay

Ethics is the bedrock of every business firm. CEOs and a few at the top are undoubtedly the guardians of values of the firm. But individual and corporate values drive behavior. Collective human behavior defines the organizational culture. The culture determines the sustainability of the success of the firm and value creation to the society at large. Root cause of most business failure could be tracked to sick culture in the firm rather than to sick financial statements. Sick culture is obviously the result of poor ethics in governance.

Defining Morality, Ethics, and Ethical theory:

Morality is concerned with the norms, values, and beliefs embedded in social processes or behavior which results into action. These define right and wrong for an individual and community. “Ethics” comes from Greek word ‘ethos’, referring to character and individual behavior. ‘Ethics’ is concerned with the study of morality and the application of reason to elucidate specific rules and principles that determine right and wrong for a given situation. These rules and principles are called ‘ethical theories’. In the context of governing an organization or business firm, application of this is referred as ‘ethical governance’.

Importance of Business Ethics

“Business ethics” is no longer considered an oxymoron. The academic field of business ethics, has matured, business ethics find a place in B-school curriculum. Literature on ethics abounds with more research studies and findings. The business community sees ethics and ethical demands as part of all its activities and as important for it to manage and to internalize. However, people are discontent generally about the visible decay in ‘ethical value’ in business spreading its cancerous roots into every parts of the society.

Unethical business decisions hurt many people – including employees, customers, and members of the general population -- as well as the business itself. Companies that are managed by persons who do not choose to do what is right are often the companies that do not survive for the long term. Organizations committed to long term success recognize the need to create a culture where ethical behaviors are encouraged and rewarded. This is the ultimate key to survival and growth in the future.

Where does ethical governance come from?

Ethical governance in business is more than ‘regulatory compliance’. It is not rule-based. It is value-based. Human values are rooted in virtues which, being difficult to measure, quantify and monitor. ‘Principle-centred’ corporate guidelines (including for accounting) are encouraged to replace ‘rule-based’ ones. Values are learnt from childhood; not taught, from variety of contacts a person experiences, stories and situations. Morals are, many a time not explicitly articulated, but implicitly conveyed. Ethics should govern ‘corporate governance’ - every action in business.

A Research Report (2006) by CFO Asia prepared in collaboration with ACCA titled “Corporate Governance, Business Ethics & the CEO states as follows: “It is harder to establish a connection between codified ethics and practical actions than to track compliance on governance or accounting systems. But ethics can be reasonably seen as an intangible, yet powerful, catalyst and supporter of compliance. Put another way, it is not possible to legislate for ethical behavior.”

For true ‘ethical governance’, the person in the business world involved in any action has to imbibe himself a commitment i.e. a strong conviction that ‘social good’ is more important than ‘individual good’. It has to come from ‘within’. Whether it is awareness or knowledge, it should create true transformation ‘within’ for the ‘ethical’ behavior to happen – to happen always on every occasion - as a natural instinct. Performance outcome reflecting true ‘ethical governance’ comes neither from those who do it with ‘I-am-sacrificing’ attitude nor from those who do with ‘I-do-sacrifice for the world-to-know’ attitude. This is the key difference between ‘ethical governance’ and other forms of ‘governance’ including activities of CSR and Charities. Can a business firm claim existence of ‘ethical governance’ when the firm’s business decisions are ethical on 99.9% occasions and unethical only on 0.1% occasion? Obviously, it cannot. Truth is always 100% and anything less than 100% is not Truth. The regulatory mechanism can only provide and should undoubtedly provide a conducive environment (not punitive environment) for this to happen. Punitive environment cannot create ‘transformation’ for ethical governance; it can only ensure ‘compliance’ mentality. Act of bribery done with no possible evidence of being caught is considered ‘conforming to compliance’ of rules but can it be conforming to ‘ethical governance”? ‘Ethics’ in letter and spirit alone is sustainable.

One school of thought supports, for instance, the rationale of making CSR activities mandatory (as seen in the draft Companies Bill 2009 linking CSR expenditure to net profit) whereas the other view support that CSR should not be made compulsory. Some other may also feel that it should be mandatory for the first three to five years after which it may gather momentum as ‘self-sustaining’ behavior. Several companies have voluntarily adopted ‘sustainability’ as key policy in business. Shell is known for its ‘people, profit, planet’ approach to sustainable growth. Companies started disclosure practices in social and environmental performance along with financial results. Ethical governance includes CSR but is more than philanthropy or CSR activity.

In ensuring ethical governance, an organization has to put in place effective system to address starring commercial realities, challenging administrative processes and difficult technical niceties. This would essentially require, among other things, a well designed and structured training mechanism which is different from all other types of corporate or industrial training.

Nevertheless, the problem with rule based ethics is that the rules do not cover all possible situations. Conflicting rules may exist. It is difficult to transform general rules into individual situations. These aspects strongly reaffirm the need for the ‘individual transformation from within’ and the resultant ‘organisational culture’ and ‘character’. This alone will ensure a foundation for ‘value-based’ decisions and behavior. “Fixing the ethics issue” is not a short-term programme.

 Moral Values & Ethics

John Fletcher Moulton’s following statement refers to the nature of self-imposed obedience to moral values. It also highlights the challenge it poses to individual integrity and to the development of true civilization: “The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization is measured by the extent of obedience to the unenforceable. It measures the extent to which a nation trusts its citizens, its existence and the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to law does not measure the greatness of a nation. Such obedience can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily come from a timorous people. Nor is the license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of law, and which is miscalled liberty, a proof of greatness. The trust test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-impose law”.

Moral values relate to what is believed to be good and of primary importance to human civilization. They are often articulated as ideals. Moral values influence judgment by differentiating right from wrong or good behavior from bad. Ethical principles are the operational expressions of moral values. They provide guidance to decision-making and action. “Values can’t just be words on a page. To be effective, they must shape action” said Jeffrey R. Immelt, Ex-CEO, General Electric.

Doing Well by Doing Good

Although ‘ethics’ is not the same as self-interest, interestingly, business executives often want to be assured that it is the same. They want to make certain that “one can do well by doing good,” i.e. one can succeed in business by being ethical. An ethical firm is more likely to build a good reputation, which is more likely to bring financial rewards over the long term. But good behavior cannot be grounded in tangible reward alone. People who are interested only in reward will behave ethically when it suits their purpose, but they will go astray whenever the incentives change.

It is important to know that one can normally do well by doing good. Otherwise ethical people could go into business only with a high risk of failure. ‘ Business ethics’, however, addresses the opposite question: how can one do good by doing well? It begins with the premise that managers want to do something good with their lives and investigates how to accomplish this through business. In other words, it treats profit and business success as means to a greater end: making the world a little better. Henry Ford, Sr. once said: "For a long time people believed that the only purpose of industry is to make a profit. They are wrong. Its purpose is to serve the general welfare."

In one sense, business ethics can be said to begin where the law ends. Business ethics is primarily concerned with those issues not covered by the law, or where there is no definite consensus on whether something is right or wrong. Discussion about the ethics of particular business practices may eventually lead to legislation, once some kind of consensus is reached, but for most of the issues of interest to business ethics, the law typically does not currently provide us with guidance. For this reason, it is often said that business ethics is about the ‘grey areas’ of business, or where, as Treviño and Nelson (2007: 3) puts it, ‘values are in conflict’.

Standards are Important

Littleton defines standard as follows: “A standard is an agreed upon criteria of what is proper practice in a given situation; a basis for comparison and judgment; Standards are not designed to confine practice within the rigid limits but rather to serve as guide-posts to truth, honesty and fair dealing. Again they are not accidental but intentional in origin; they are expected to be expressive of the deliberately chosen policies of the highest types of business. They direct a high but attainable level of performance, without precluding justifiable departures and variations in the procedures employed”.  Though several companies have created ‘Code of Ethics”, like the ‘Accounting Standards’ issued from time to time by the institutions of accounting profession, introducing ‘standards’ for ‘ethical governance at industry level can also be considered. 

Ethics & Leadership in Business

A New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted in 1985 revealed (a) 55 percent of the Americans believe that the vast majority of corporate executives are dishonest and (b) 59 percent think that executive white-collar crime occurs on a regular basis. A 1987 Wall Street Journal article noted that one-fourth of the 671 executives surveyed by a leading research firm believed that ethics can impede a successful career, and that over one-half of all the executives they knew bent the rules to get ahead. 1990 National Survey published by Prentice Hall concluded that the standards of ethical practice and moral leadership of business leaders merit at best a C grade. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed believed that the unethical behavior of executives is the primary cause of the decline in business standards, productivity, and success. The survey further suggested that because of the perceived low ethical standards of the executive class, workers feel justified in responding in kind -- through absenteeism, petty theft, indifference, and a generally poor performance on the job. Many workers openly admitted of spending more than 20 percent (eight hours a week) of their time at work totally goofing off. Almost half of those surveyed admitted to chronic malingering on a regular basis. One in six of the workers surveyed said that he or she drank or used drugs while on duty. Three out of four workers reported that their primary reason for working was "to keep the wolf from the door"; only one in four claimed to give his or her "best effort" to the job. The survey concluded that the standards equation of the American workplace is a simple one: American workers are as ethical/dutiful in doing their jobs as their bosses. (as the famous Indian saying goes : “Yadha Raaja, Thadha Prajaa”)

Only with continuous commitment, enforcement, and modeling of leadership, ethical behavior can be achieved in any organization. The ethics of leadership -- whether ‘be good’ or ‘be bad’, “positive” or “ negative” -- affect the ethos of the workplace. It is the Leader who can help to set the tone, develop the vision, and shape the behavior of all those involved in organizational life. A CMA can re-position his role in shaping and firmly fixing the root i.e. to go beyond the performance analysis to drive performance, formulating ethical Strategy, helping strategy execution caring to see no unethical means are employed to achieve the goal though the goal per se is ethical.

Ethical Dilemma :

Ethical dilemma is a situation that arises when all alternative choices or behaviors have been deemed undesirable because of potentially negative consequences, making it difficult to distinguish right from wrong.

Ethical problems are problems of choice. They become problems not because of the peoples’ tendency to do evil, but because of the conflicting nature of the standards and interests which are valid in themselves. Problems in ethical decision-making occur when the individual interests and the social norms conflict with each other.

The tendency to overemphasize legal compliance mechanisms may result in an attempt to substitute “accountability” for “responsibility” and may also result in an attempt to legislate morality. The focus of the virtues in governance is to establish a series of practical responses which depend on the consistent application of core values and principles as well as commitment to ethical business practices.

Examples of ethical values ("Six Pillars of Character" developed by The Josephson Institute of Ethics):

Trustworthiness: honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, loyalty

Respect: autonomy, privacy, dignity, courtesy, tolerance, acceptance

Responsibility: accountability, pursuit of excellence

Caring: compassion, consideration, giving, sharing, kindness, loving

Justice and fairness: procedural fairness, impartiality, consistency, equity, equality, due process

Civic virtue and citizenship: law abiding, community service, protection of environment.

Business Ethics and Finance

Ethics and finance have been at the focal point of many corporate misbehavior resulting in corporate failure or value depletion to stakeholders, public distrust and protest against corporate and government misdemeanours. Undoubtedly, we should stop asking, if at all we do, hypothetical or otherwise, questions such as ‘do the benefits outweigh the costs when a firm acts unethically?” The answer is obvious. When a manager resorts to unethical practice or act of manipulations, it results neither in ‘win-win’ situation nor in ‘win-loss’ situation but in ‘loss-loss’ situation. It destroys all. The recent scandals engulfing the financial industry including the LIBOR scandal are signs of moral decay.  None can ever hear of sustainable value creation from unethical behavior. The real question to be answered centers around achieving true internalization of ethical behavior by everyone in business as a natural outcome embedded in culture. Doing business ethically is not just something which is handled by someone in compliance or legal department. It is part of the way everyone works. The CMA professionals should be well equipped to provide the lead for the same.

Ethical Governance and CMA professionals:

The headlines in daily newspapers portrait several accounting cover-ups, financial mismanagement, plain cases of unlawful business practices. Perhaps less discussed is the CMAs role in bringing out necessary reforms to calm the financial market offering sustainable solutions and mature systems in business world both at micro and macro levels.

Accounting professionals, particularly Management Accountants, today, are less involved in traditional accounting. We see a welcome shift in their role towards leadership and management. Both ‘support to decision-making’ and ‘direct involvement in the top level decision making’ entail clear understanding of ethics and governance. Discharge of key stewardship functions, therefore, demands thorough skill in application of their core professional knowledge in regulatory regimes, compliance requirements and governance mechanism with embedded ethical standards.

Ethics should govern business. Ethical standards help to make it happen. Management control systems including various practices such as management audit, operational audit and cost audit can be made more effective if such practices can widen scope beyond ‘compliance-oriented’ approach. The role of accounting information in strengthening corporate control mechanisms can be re-defined. Companies now go beyond financial information. Modern tools such as Balanced Scorecards are used to incorporate non-financial information and to manage strategy execution driving business performance. Though the present ICAI –CMA curriculum finds inclusion of Corporate Governance (in Section II of Paper 11 of the Final stage), it seems inadequate if a CMA is to be positioned to lead the business world in ethical governance, integrated reporting and managers of the drivers of performance. Suitable change is essential in the teaching and training contents, CMAs can lead organizations in co-creating sustainable business value keeping ethics at the centre.

The famous quote of Peter Drucker namely, “Doing the right thing” is Effectiveness and “Doing things right” is Efficiency, gives insightful hint. CMA can provide substantial professional leadership to a firm in ‘doing the right thing’ as well. CMA has fundamental responsibilities in four broad areas: first, to maintain a high level of professional competence; second, to treat sensitive matters with confidentiality; third, to maintain personal integrity; and fourth, to disclose information in a credible fashion. This can be broadened to include ethical aspects as follows:

To create an organizational culture wherein everyone promotes awareness of ethical responsibilities, discharge duties free from any tint of unethical thoughts or deeds, demonstrates behavour which causes minimum instances of ethical issues/conflicts and exhibits capabilities to resolve issues quickly, if issues emerge.

To act as a catalyst or a source of inspiration in achieving ethical behavior among all.

To build, manage, analyse, interpret and sustain information flow setting exemplary standards of social and environmental performance wherever CMA gets associated.

In a dynamic global environment, to fulfill the above demanding but unfulfilled role, a CMA has to develop a range of professional ethics, values and attitudes not only within himself but also in all areas of his influence and contact. Strangely, unlike the other disciplines of knowledge, ethics cannot be taught. Ethics should be imbibed. It has more to do with ‘being good’ than ‘knowing good’ or even more than ‘doing good’. This key aspect of ‘ethical governance’ is substantiated by the following :

“While there have been positive developments in terms of building the architecture for ethical codes and policies, the translation of these into actual practice and everyday business processes is lagging behind.”- quote from Report on “Managing Responsible Business” – A Global Survey on Business Ethics – 2011 conducted by CGMA [Certified Global Management Accountant – a body jointly formed by the AICPA and CIMA, London]. This report also states the following: “A recent study of 18 major corporate crises revealed that risks related to failures of ethos, culture and behaviour tended to go unrecognised and yet were major causes of the crisis - even worse, such risks tipped the original crisis into a ‘reputational catastrophe.’. This confirms the critical need to monitor ethical performance. A CMA should be readied to fill the gap.

The professional training with emphasis on ethical aspects of governance would make a CMA most suitable person to take responsibility to act as change agent within the organization, supporting the maintenance of effective internal control systems and ensuring that his organization has considered, adopted, and fully implemented a company-wide ‘ethics and compliance program’, including code of ethics and confidential hot/helpline.

The CMA’s role includes the following:

To embed wider ethical aspects into organizational strategy and performance measurement.

To collect, quantify, analyze and interpret, monitor and evaluate relevant and precise information on ethical practices, demonstrated value-based behaviour and CSR activities.

To actively contribute in effective implementation and desired cultural transformation.

To address and resolve issues relating to ethical dilemmas and pressures also by putting in place preventive measures.

To support for solutions for business issues relating to security of information, acts of dishonesty and misuse of delegated power for personal enrichment.

A CMA has to understand the following and hence the teaching and training contents have to be suitably revised:

(a) nature of the CMA profession and the roles of professional management accountants.

(b) to acquire proficiency to apply the key professional responsibilities of a management accountant as a member of Institute (s)he belongs

(c) to develop ability to constantly bear in mind the importance and potential future implications of ethics and/or absence of ethics in the business.

(d) to be fully conversant with the key governance and regulatory frameworks, including international perspectives on corporate governance and the roles of various stakeholders.

(e) to be competent to describe the nature, role and importance of corporate social responsibility, including climate change and sustainable development.

(f) to be able to explain to all concerned the expectations placed on various internal and external stakeholders arising from organisational governance responsibilities. For example, an ethical business has to be concerned with the behaviour of all businesses that operate in the supply chain i.e. Suppliers, Contractors, Distributors, Sales agents etc.

(g) to be able to ascertain and quantify in a meaningful and simple way various compliance and regulatory regimes impacting the global business environment.

(h) to be able to develop industry-specific and user-friendly performance measurement mechanism in respect of ethical governance.

PROFESSIONAL OPPORTUNITY

Considering the misdeeds resulting from unethical behaviour in companies like Enron, WorldCom, HealthSouth, Satyam Computers etc, none can deny that highly paid professionals impacted thousands of lives and shook the financial markets. Management Accountants should re-position themselves as committed professionals to serve the cause of the public interest. This is the hallmark of what it is to be a CMA. Though creation of ethical organizational culture resides with leaders and followers, leadership by definition demands that leaders be the front runners in creating it. Ethical standards should not only be set but also be met.

Several studies are available examining the relationship between financial accounting information, corporate control mechanisms and corruption. Corporate control mechanisms are among the most effective tools to reduce such incidences of value-erosion, because they promote values such as accountability, transparency, fairness and responsibility. These mechanisms are fundamental for the enhancement of the business performance as well. Management accountant helps in this by aligning himself every day with his organization that is committed to truth-telling and to full disclosure of relevant information to interested parties. This is done by being objective and by following own best judgments rather than submitting to the pressures of targets and management preferences. Society looks forward to a professional like management accountant to serve not only as a bulwark against unethical behavior but also to drive an organizational culture where such things can never happen.


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