The general ethical standards of society apply to people in professions such as medicine and accounting just as much as to anyone else. However, society places even higher expectations on professionals. People need to have confidence in the quality of the complex services provided by professionals. Because of these high expectations, professions have adopted codes of ethics, also known as codes of professional conduct. These ethical codes call for their members to maintain a level of self-discipline that goes beyond the requirements of laws and regulations.
CODES OF ETHICS
By joining their professional organizations, people who work in the field of accounting agree to uphold the high ethical standards of their profession. Each of the major professional associations for accountants has a code of ethics. The Code of Professional Conduct of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), the national professional association for CPAs, sets forth ethical principles and rules of conduct for its members. The principles are positively stated and provide general guidelines that CPAs (or any professionals, for that matter) should strive to follow. The rules of conduct are much more explicit as to specific actions that should or should not be taken. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) Standards of Ethical Conduct applies to practitioners of management accounting and financial management, and the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) Code of Ethics applies to its members and to Certified Internal Auditors (CIAs).
A distinguishing mark of professions such as medicine and accounting is acceptance of their responsibilities to the public. The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct describes the accounting profession's public as consisting of "clients, credit grantors, governments, employers, investors, the business and financial community, and others who rely on the objectivity and integrity of CPAs to maintain the orderly functioning of commerce." Many, but not all, CPAs work in firms that provide accounting, auditing, and other services to the general public; these CPAs are said to be in public practice. Regardless of where CPAs work, the AICPA Code applies to their professional conduct, although there are some special provisions for those in public practice. Internal auditors, management accountants, and financial managers most commonly are employees of the organizations to which they provide these services; but, as professionals, they, too, must also be mindful of their obligations to the public.
The responsibilities placed on accounting professionals by the three ethics codes and the related professional standards have many similarities. All three require professional competence, confidentiality, integrity, and objectivity. Accounting professionals should only undertake tasks that they can complete with professional competence, and they must carry out their responsibilities with sufficient care and diligence, usually referred to as due professional care or due care. The codes of ethics of the AICPA, IMA, and IIA all require that confidential information known to accounting professionals not be disclosed to outsiders. The most significant exception to the confidentiality rules is that accounting professionals' work papers are subject to subpoena by a court; nothing analogous to attorney-client privilege exists.
Maintaining integrity and…