Navigating Ethical Challenges as You Climb the Corporate Ladder

by Jennifer Boylan, CPA | Apr 25, 2017
Pennsylvania CPA Journal
The higher we climb up the corporate ladder to the C-suite or as a firm partner, the more regularly we will encounter ethical challenges that require difficult choices.

These choices can arise in job interviews, on consulting projects, during day-to-day operations, or in closed-door meetings with supervisors, executive leadership, or a board of directors.

We may be asked or instructed to do questionable things for various reasons: to drive revenue, to build staff loyalty, to hide a coworker’s incompetence, or to increase a boss’s (or our own) annual bonus.

We quickly learn, and sometimes painfully, the steep price that an ethical mind-set demands, especially when ethics and economics conflict. When we refuse to comply with an unethical request, leaders or organizations that are focused solely on economics may initiate wrongful terminations, intimidation, retaliations, or the denial of career-changing promotions.

As CPAs, we have a strict code of professional conduct to which we must adhere to keep our CPA license. But when situations are in a gray area, when faced with challenges that don’t feel right, the following three concepts can offer guidance in those decision-making moments.

A higher order of ethics is more than just following the rules – Honesty and not compromising our integrity must be paramount. Company rules can be arbitrary or internally derived based on groupthink. They are not always grounded in values-based principles or specific regulations. Rules also change.

A highly ethical mind-set, with honesty at its core, serves as an internal compass that points to what is right at all times. It also eliminates the need to posture or to politick to manage “perceptions” that we are doing the right thing because we are, and we will continue to do so.

Commit to living a life aligned with ethical principles – Leadership capabilities diminish when one is divorced from ethics. Leadership based solely on inspiration and innovation, without ethics, ensures manipulative politics and, ultimately, will end in failure.

A commitment to live a life aligned with ethical principles shifts our focus from “what we do” to the more important criteria of “how we do it.” This results in leadership that drives positive, ethically-based change, growth, and long-term success.

Resist the urge to rationalize – Rationalization in the face of an ethical challenge will tempt us to ignore our inner voice. It leads to distorted thinking followed by ethical compromises that are somehow justified by fabricated “good” reasons.

Rationalization tempts us to compromise ethics in the name of convenience – especially when financial gain, whether personal or business, is at stake. When we expand our thinking beyond “Is this profitable?” and “How will this affect my bonus?” to ask “Is this right?”, we open ourselves to the possibility of new, creative solutions that are ethically based and financially impactful.

Regardless of where we stand on the corporate ladder, we will, at some point, be faced with the need to make an ethical decision to do the right thing. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Are we committed to doing it?”

Jennifer Boylan, CPA, is chief financial officer for Help Hope Live Inc. in Radnor. She can be reached at
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