Influence and change: a study of the ethical decision making of trainee accountants

Hull, Alison Katherine (1999) Influence and change: a study of the ethical decision making of trainee accountants. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis is concerned with the subject of ethical decision making. A large number of theoretical models of ethical decision making have been developed in recent years. Apart from a small number of studies, there has been very little empirical testing of the theoretical frameworks. Even fewer studies have examined ethical decision making in a longitudinal framework. This thesis defines and extends a part of one of the models, and tests it longitudinally. The longitudinal context allows dynamic issues in ethical decision making to be explored - how ethical decision making changes over time in response to various individual and situational factors. An important debate in the ethical decision making literature concerns the appropriate conceptual basis for ethical judgement. Most previous studies have focused either on the Cognitive Moral Development construct from psychology or on moral philosophy as the root of ethical judgement. This study develops existing theory to accommodate a third basis, that of personal values. The results of the study show that the personal values construct has significant explanatory power. Further, they suggest that it offers an attractive avenue by which researchers can further explore the relationships between the individual and the organisation.

The accountancy profession provides the specific context for this study. Very little is known about how trainee accountants develop a sense of professional ethics. The objective of this study is to examine if and how the ethical decision-making of chartered accountants changes from the time they first join the profession to the end of the three year training period. Previous research has suggested that there may be a possible deficiency in the ethical development of accountants, and that accountancy training may not equip trainees to deal with the ethical conflicts which can arise in their work. Specifically, there is a critical view in the UK accounting literature that professional ethics training tends to focus on rule-following, and does not develop trainees' analytical ethical reasoning abilities. One of the aims of this study is, therefore, to assess the impact of existing professional training programmes as one of a number of individual and situational factors which may influence the ethical judgement of trainee chartered accountants. In order to do this, one group of trainees, a subset of the graduates who joined professional accountancy firms in autumn 1994, were surveyed at different points during their three-year Training Contracts. The study is unique in terms of its context, a large scale survey of UK trainee chartered accountants, and in terms of its longitudinal methodology.

The results illustrate the possibility that different standards or sets of values e. g. personal and professional, can be brought to bear on single decisions in the professional context. Further, the experience of professional training and socialisation does not appear to aid trainees in resolving this type of conflict. In this study, personal values are found to be a major influence on ethical judgement across scenarios and across time while organisational values become increasingly important over time. In particular, the results suggest that commercial organisational values affect trainees themselves, not just their decision making, by influencing their personal values over time. Change in trainees' personal values, and correspondingly on their ethical judgement, does not appear to be brought about by specific job-related variables such as ethics training, peer group opinion or external pressures of time. It seems more likely that these specific factors are absorbed by trainees as subconscious indicators of an organisation's values. It makes sense then that the study also shows that the impact of these organisational values on personal values is moderated by organisational commitment, the willingness to believe in an organisation's goals and values.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Ennew, C.T.
Wright, D.M.
Keywords: Trainee accountants, accountancy, moral and ethical aspects
Subjects: H Social sciences > HF Commerce
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > Nottingham University Business School
Item ID: 11127
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 12 Feb 2010 09:32
Last Modified: 15 Oct 2017 06:54

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