If an accounting firm wants to maintain a strong ethical environment from top to bottom, a new study by a Kansas State University accounting professor and her colleagues find it’s important that the firm’s environment is viewed the same from bottom to top.
The study also finds that even those in leadership positions may benefit from mentoring.
“The Influence of Roles and Organizational Fit on Accounting Professionals’ Perceptions of Their Firms’ Ethical Environment” will be published in the Journal of Business Ethics’ special issue on accounting ethics and tone at the top.
It is co-authored by Kansas State University’s Amy Hageman, assistant professor of accounting; Donna Bobek, University of Central Florida; and Robin Radtke, Clemson University.
Their paper is one of the first research studies to empirically test potential reasons why firm leaders and non-leaders — or professional staff — can have contrasting perspectives of the firm’s ethical environment. They tested their research using a questionnaire that was completed by 139 accounting professionals employed at certified public accounting firms.
In previous studies, Hageman and her fellow researchers demonstrated that leaders and non-leaders at public accounting firms have different perceptions of their firms.
They found that while most accounting professionals perceive the ethical environment of their firm as quite strong, the firms’ leaders — partners, principals and directors —perceive the ethical environment as even stronger than the other staffers.
The major finding in their most recent study was why this difference arises, Hageman said.
Because non-leader accounting professionals would include recent college graduates, Hageman said the research shows the importance of students taking business ethics courses.
Hageman said other studies by the research team have found that a firm’s ethical environment has an important influence on ethical decision-making. Thus, the same person placed in a different environment may make a very different decision based on his or her perceptions of what constitutes ethical behavior within the organization.
The study also produced a surprising result: it’s important for firm leaders to receiving mentoring.
While firm leaders were much less likely to have received formal or informal mentoring in the previous year, Hageman said having received such mentoring was related to how leaders perceived their firms’ ethical environment.
The study is part of a stream of research that Hageman, Bobek and Radtke are undertaking on ethical decision-making of accounting professionals and the importance of the firm’s ethical environment.