This essay is part of our insights and resources to encourage discussions around the principles outlined in the Audit Manifesto.
We understand the essence of ‘professional identity’ as something that is not a measurable behaviour but pertains to virtues and worldviews. Professional identity relates to a sense of personal commitment and a shared understanding of professional purpose, to ensure the ethical responsibility to both clients and society. Helping an audit client is not the same as securing the outcome the client is seeking. Developing agency and moral reasoning in audit professionals is essential and should be at the heart of their identity.
Understanding and being motivated by the higher purposes of their professional practice is what drives individuals to engage and excel. Part of the journey people go through on the way to becoming auditors should develop moral sensitivity and the ability to critically recognise themselves as responsible individuals. As professional people, they should recognise that their actions can impact society, and that the power and trust society grants them contribute towards a specific public good.
In our work, we often draw on the influential theory of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who points out that professionals should have a critical view of themselves as moral agents. He argues that sensitivity and motivation come with the ability to reason independently. Audit professionals should recognise that they have the ability and good reason to judge the expected standards of behaviour that guide their work.
Simply said, professionals should have the ability to make independent decisions, by interrogating their own biases as individuals and critically assessing the professional standards that they follow.
Human behaviour is shaped by many things. Family, organisational culture and social norms may all play a role; behaviour is never conceptually and contextually empty. Once people start to understand the purpose of an activity, such as auditing financial statements, they can start to develop their understanding of the reasoning behind it. Unpacking purpose enables us to better understand our commitment to it or the rationale behind guiding rules and codes.
For these reasons, a deeper and more conceptual understanding of the purpose of the profession is needed. The ability to do this is as an essential evaluative capacity that can help audit professionals to appreciate things such as the reasons behind rules and the context in which these rules have to be applied. This contextual understanding is fundamental to deciding when and how to act. Rules have to be in sync with morality. Otherwise, as MacIntyre points out: “If morality becomes a personal aspiration only, while in their professional life people follow rules, the essence of a profession will become a hollow concept.”
This line of thinking is quite different from popular current thinking which tends to be heavily influenced by behavioural science. Since we cannot know or control what individuals think or believe, we require certain standards of behaviours. While some may consider this as the best proxy, moral philosophers argue that it is not enough to ensure or sustain long-term commitment to the profession. As controlling for standards of behaviour does not provide the time and space to think about agency, motivation and judgment, the audit profession needs to create the conditions to foster individuals’ capacities for judgment
A paradox is being created by increasingly emphasising and enforcing standards and rules. Are we asking people to neglect their own commitment to family, friends and profession? Are we asking people to subdue their own personal motivations in order to act on some universal and codified principles? Why would people feel motivated to do so?
To put it another way, the paradox is that we are asking people to do something without giving them motivation to do so. The AuditFutures’ Ethos project tries to address this. By introducing auditors to virtue ethics (which emphasises virtues and moral character) and reviving (in ethics teaching), the notion of ‘telos’ [as end goals and objectives]), AuditFutures is trying to help people understand purpose. In this context, politics is also important as the profession needs to negotiate its purpose with society.
This report as a practical tool to facilitate discussions into the nature of being professionalRead more
A thought-piece by Martin Martinoff on the urgent need to revive professionalismRead more
We took part in the 2017 IVBEC Conference on Professional and Business EthicsRead more