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Want Ethical Staff? Be the Model.

Ethical character leads to positive outcomes, both in person and on social media.
August 24, 2020

By Karen Helderman, CPA

Integrity is synonymous with honesty, reliability and honor. C.S. Lewis summed up the definition of integrity best in his famous quote, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” As CPAs, we know the public is always watching and expects us to act with integrity and choose a path of honesty, respect and professionalism. Your integrity really comes to life and is tested as you go about your daily routine and make important choices. 

Those of us in leadership positions have additional responsibilities when it comes to integrity. Not only must we set an example and exhibit ethical behavior, we are on the front line, promoting a culture where our employees want to act with integrity and feel comfortable asking questions and voicing concerns. What can you do to create this type of culture? Some ideas include:

  • Engage with your staff by asking questions and truly listening to their responses. Show you are listening by repeating what you have heard and, when appropriate, follow up the discussion with an email.
  • Reward staff who demonstrate ethical behavior.  Recognize and reward employees who gain accomplishments ethically or put the interest of others above their own.  This signals to other employees that ethical behavior is important to your organization.
  •  Give your staff credit for their ideas. Public acknowledgement that an employee recommended an idea that elicited positive change not only gives the employee a sense of pride, but also sets an example for others to follow.
  • Include goals that staff can measure and reasonably achieve when giving feedback. Reasonable goals take away the guesswork about your expectations and let your staff know that they can achieve them while acting with integrity.

As a manager or supervisor, your behavior has a direct impact in reducing your company’s ethics and compliance risk, resulting in positive outcomes. Your employees study how you behave and they notice if your words and actions do not align. They also notice if you tend to blame others when things go wrong, lie or falsify reports or if you fail to keep your word. When an employee perceives their leader as unethical or lacking integrity, they, in turn, feel less engaged, care less about following policies and procedures and are more likely to fear retaliation if they speak up.

According to a National Business Ethics Survey published by the Ethics Resource Center, direct managers are the most influential individuals in setting the ethical tone for employees. For this reason, it is important that as a manager, you understand this influence and ensure your actions inspire your employees to do the right thing.  You can promote ethics and integrity by telling your employees to do the right thing, but your employees receive most of their inspiration by actually observing you acting in a positive, ethical way. Sustaining your positive, ethical character can be particularly challenging in today’s environment — where social media provides a means for employees to also easily observe and judge your character outside of work. 

Certainly social media has positive effects, by allowing each of us to build meaningful connections with friends, families and coworkers, and to share important events, photographs, opinions and information. But sometimes it can be difficult for us to separate our professional and personal lives. As a CPA and manager, you must be mindful of how your online presence affects how your staff, boss and potential clients judge your ethical character.
It is likely your company has no policies regarding social media presence, because they understand that we all enjoy our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. And after all, you should not need a company policy to dictate how to make good, conscious choices about your posts in an effort to protect your personal reputation. One good rule to follow is to think before you post. Consider and reflect on how your social media posts may affect how others perceive your personal integrity and contemplate if the post is really worth the damage it may do. 

Here are a few simple ideas to consider if you want to maintain a social media presence that demonstrates strong integrity.

  1. Avoid posting negative stories about work. In fact, consider not posting about your work at all. If you do, focus on positive remarks about the successes of your company.
  2. Be sensitive to cultural and political differences and avoid unnecessary posts that others may find offensive. 
  3. If you have a concern about work, think twice before posting about it on social media where it can only do harm. Instead, discuss the concern with your supervisor or human resources since these individuals can actually investigate and address the matter.
  4. Only post accurate and true information. Individuals may rely on your information, and if it is not accurate, you may get a reputation for spreading false stories that will only harm your personal integrity.
  5. Consider whether social media is the right platform for your comments. Be respectful of others’ feelings by discussing personal matters face-to-face or by phone, rather than a public forum. 

Even if you are not a manager or in a position that influences the personal integrity of others, you, as a CPA, should be sensitive to the impact your behavior and actions has on the CPA profession, your firm or company brand and potential clients or employers that you may wish to serve in the future. You have worked hard to earn your CPA distinction and it is important to remember that given a choice, most individuals would hire and recommend a CPA known for having strong personal integrity — someone they can trust to do the right thing, exercise restraint, model good judgment and influence others to do the same.

Karen Kyte Helderman, CPA, CISA, PMP, is the executive director of audit and compliance services at Virginia Commonwealth University.  She has extensive experience directing financial, compliance and performance audits of state agencies and universities throughout the Commonwealth and is a member of the Disclosures Editorial Task Force.