Date posted: 16/01/2018

Making a difference starts with ethics

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Name any real-life hero. There's one thing they all have in common and it's what compels them to act the way they do: Ethics. We speak to Haripriya Vutukoor of the Cancer Research Division of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre about ethics and how they factor into the work she does.

Ethics are the values underpinning every thought, action and decision we make.

It can be helpful to think of ethics as the morals or personal standards that you won't compromise, no matter the incentives or consequences before you.

Most importantly, ethics are just as crucial in the workplace as they are in our personal lives.

Ethics at work

For Haripriya Vutukoor, Lead Accountant and Finance Manager for the Cancer Research Division at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, ethics are an invaluable asset to her work.

"I ensure researchers are spending their grants and donations in line with the intent of the funding body or donor," Haripriya says.

"Furthermore, I ensure all my management reporting along with any accounting adjustments made, reflect a true and fair view whether that be at a divisional, lab or grant level."

Not only are ethics helpful to her own career progression, they benefit the company as well.

"An organisation that fosters good ethics will find that their employees produce effective results, build good morale, are loyal to the company, and are interested in genuine growth and improvement opportunities,"Haripriya says.

Beyond building a more comfortable work life, ethics help to protect businesses from issues like fraud and misuse of time.

They help to set ground rules for good behaviour and professionalism that then allow for effective decision making. The hard part is consistency in making right choices.

A prominent social theory1 about ethical decision-making proposes six stages of moral judgement that humans move through as they develop. The lower two stages refer to someone who chooses what is right based on obedience to authority and fear of punishment. The middle stages are those whose moral judgement rely on the expectations of significant others, rules, or laws. Finally, in the highest two levels, the individual determines what is right autonomously.

The research shows that most American adults were in the middle levels where actions are influenced by others. Fewer than 20 percent reach the higher stages of autonomous accountability.

Additionally, moral reasoning has been found to be lower when individuals respond to work-related dilemmas compared to non-work issues.2

Accounting ethics

Thanks to the Australian Accounting Standards Board, key rules and regulations are set for accountants to follow. Haripriya says it's helpful having set standards to refer to.

"As you grow confident in your abilities and knowledge of the code of conduct, there is nothing much anyone can say or do to cause you to deviate from the ethical pathway," Haripriya says.

"As an accountant you should know that the numbers don't lie, and you shouldn't allow them to!"

Chartered Accountants uphold an ethical code including integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality, and professional behaviour.3

These are some of the personal attributes Haripriya looks for now in her managerial position. Stick to the tried and tested rules, and she says your work as an accountant will be both high quality, defensible, and employable.

And when in doubt, rather than floundering - simply ask for help!

"Seek guidance from a mentor that you feel demonstrates strong ethics," Haripriya advises.

Ethics of your own

Whether you reckon you have a solid set of principles or not, everyone's ethical approach can be improved upon. Reviewing the way in which you handle your work and communications can be a simple first step towards demonstrating good ethics.

For example, while she acknowledges that making mistakes is part of the learning process, Haripriya suggests that being accountable for your own actions and attempting to rectify the situation as soon as possible is best practice.

"Not many people own up to mistakes, and if they do, not many can propose a way forward after careful consideration of the key stakeholders and potential consequences," Haripriya says.

In thinking about her own career progression, she acknowledges that it is mainly her accountability that has helped her to stand out.

Haripriya believes graduates should take pride in their work, always maintain an attitude of professionalism, be clear and consistent in communications, consider what they can offer others (clients, team, organisation, etc), and be a role model. Sometimes the latter means maintaining your own standards instead of adopting potentially bad habits from senior colleagues.

"As I've strengthened my technical capabilities, I've become more confident in my own ethics. Consequently, I have developed candour and the willingness to speak out (whilst still managing my relationships) if I believe something is not right," Haripriya says.

"This has also helped me progress in my career and gain the trust and respect of the senior leadership team. My colleagues know that I will stick to what is right and moral, regardless of whatever benefits might eventuate from an alternative path."

If you aim to excel in your career, strive to be a part of that 20 percent of people who make it to a higher level of ethical decision making - just like Haripriya.

Note: Since this story was first published, Haripriya has moved onto a new position as Associate Director Finance at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne.