Over half of public sector accountants under pressure to act unethically 

3 Sep 18

Almost 60% of public sector finance professionals have come under pressure to act unethically at least once in their career, a CIPFA survey has found.

The institute surveyed members and other public sector accountants about ethical matters over the summer.

The results, revealed exclusively in PF, found that 57% of the 487 respondents said they had been put under pressure or felt under pressure to act in a professionally unethical way.

Of those who felt under pressure, 8% said they had fully carried out an unethical action, and 28% had done so partially.

The three most commonly cited unethical actions were supporting excessively optimistic budgets and business cases, dodging policies, standing orders and other regulations, and unreasonably downplaying risks.

Line managers and chief finance officers, chief executives and other directors were the two most commonly cited source of pressure in all sectors.

For respondents in local government, the council’s political leadership provided a third source of pressure, while those in the NHS cited pressure from regulators.

Commenting on the findings, Margaret Pratt, chair of CIPFA’s ethics working group, said it was concerning that a minority of accountants were “prepared, for whatever reason, to compromise their ethical principles. I think that’s quite dangerous in professional terms.”

Pratt told PF that the institute needed to better understand the factors that might be driving people to behave unethically, whether that was organisational culture or personal issues, such as having to pay a mortgage and other family responsibilities.

The survey found threats were the chief means through which pressure to act unethically was applied. Very few respondents had been offered incentives.

Overall, 57% of respondents who said they had faced pressure said they felt under threat.

Respondents said they had been told they would passed over for promotion, see their post deleted or face disciplinary action. Some experienced stress and other mental health problems.

Pratt said accountants needed to perform a regular “ethical work out”, so they were prepared, while CIPFA should provide some practical help and support to help people stay out of ethically compromising situations.

“We’re trying to help people behave and survive professionally in a changed climate,” she said. 

CIPFA’s ethics working group was formed in July 2016 to respond to the 
draft code from the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants.

This is set for adoption next year.

  • Vivienne Russell
    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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