The media and the public are right to focus on the wage subsidy and its take up by businesses, including by professions. It is attention the professions I belong to, chartered accountancy and law, should not shy away from.
Many professional firms have seen their revenues take significant Covid-19 hits and are genuinely eligible for the subsidy; others may have projected a significant hit but now found their revenues are holding up.
The very foundations of these professions are trust and expertise and a commitment to act in the public interest. These are embodied in professional codes of ethics.
The question for professions should not be 'do I have the right to do this?' but "am I doing the right thing?"
In a recent Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) survey, both the public and Chartered Accountants rated a Code of Ethics as the key essential characteristic of a profession. The public did so by a narrow margin, but Chartered Accountants did so by a significant one. We have high expectations of our peers.
Doing the right thing is not just an issue for the professional firms, but also for the thousands of professionals who work in businesses around the country.
Yesterday I recorded a presentation to CA ANZ members on "Ethics in the Covid-19 era".
One case study concerned an accountant in a business being asked by their CEO to apply for the Covid-19 wage subsidy on dubious grounds.
The accountant as a member of our profession is required to demonstrate integrity and professional behaviour. They must manage any threats to their objectivity and independence.
In this hypothetical example, the accountant must act ethically in the face of the pressure from the CEO. The right thing for the accountant to do is to review the eligibility rules and how they apply to the business's circumstances and have the difficult conversation with the CEO armed with all the relevant information.
The accountant should put on the table the Government's clear signalling about the policy intent behind the subsidy; the fact that all payments are subject to review and audit by the relevant regulators; and the transparency of the payments – accessible to all via a searchable database.
While rules and regulations are essential, there will always be gaps – the no man's land between having a right to do something and doing the right thing.
Professional codes of ethics are designed to fill – to take ownership – of those gaps. They contain principles that govern professional behaviour in a business environment, guiding individuals on what is ethical, as opposed to just what is legal.
These codes differentiate professions from other occupations which share some of the traditional criteria of a profession, for example, an advanced education and belonging to a representative body.
Many occupations require a high level of expertise and training. However, not all are bound by an ethical code, which if violated could result in sanctions preventing them from working in that role again.
A Chartered Accountant or lawyer struck off for poor conduct is unlikely to work again in their profession.
From the public's perspective, professions are all about trust and confidence. A professional designation provides everyone with confidence that they are dealing with a trusted and ethical expert.
- Peter Vial is the New Zealand Country Head for Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, is a Chartered Accountant and a lawyer.