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Unethical TV - fun but there is a lesson too

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Accountants are legally empowered to execute certain financial obligations on behalf of organisations. They’re often given privileged access to confidential or sensitive financial and operational data, from which they may be expected to form opinions and provide advice.

Being a professional comes with many responsibilities, no matter which employment sector. You need a good ethical compass, one that can steer you through difficult decisions or avoid easy, but less-than-legal paths.

We’ve looked at a few of the breakthrough drama’s available on Netflix; Suits and House of Cards to uncover how easy it is to become unethical in real-life situations. While these shows would be nowhere near as fun if they didn’t show characters being wilfully unethical things – often in the righteous cause of ‘doing the right thing’ – they nevertheless thrive on the seriousness of ethics. These shows wouldn’t exist if they couldn’t put their characters into tough ethical quandaries.

Suits

The central theme of the narrative is based on a secret held between the two main characters – Mike Ross and Harvey Spectre. Mike dropped out of law school, made a living illegally sitting law exams for others, got caught up in a drug deal, met top lawyer Harvey, who was so impressed with Mike’s knowledge for the law that he overlooked the fact he was not legally allowed to practice law and hired him anyway, helping Harvey win cases he probably wouldn’t have won fairly, and all the while convinced they’re doing the ‘right thing’.

The applause from grateful clients, thankful for his untamed defence capabilities and unchecked practices, only encourage Mike to believe he was doing what is best for them.

There’s even a blog dedicated to unpicking the ethics of individual plots in Suits.

House of Cards

The name Frank Underwood has become synonymous with evasive politics for the Netflix generation. After being looked over by the US president for a high role in the White House, Underwood sets out on an unscrupulous course of manipulation and deceit to gain increasingly more political power. Again, not everything Underwood, or his often complicit wife, do is illegal, but their use of illicitly gained information to attack or pressure others, and their comfort with lying all the way to the top, uncovers a treasure chest of ethical exclamation marks – including murder!

The Good Wife

Where the Suits lawyers may bend the law in the name of good morals, The Good Wife has a far purer protagonist – power! Nearly everyone is ethically dubious and corrupt. Alicia Florrick is the wife of a US State’s Attorney in Chicago, who brings embarrassment to the family when caught up in a corruption and sex scandal (though he still managers to go on to become a state governor).

Now a single parent with two kids, Florrick returns to law at a firm run by an ex-flame. The firm’s mantra is ‘everything for the client’, which ultimately leads to Florrick and her colleagues zealously striving for the ‘win’ at all costs, be it for drug dealers or murderers. While not necessarily always illegal in how they operate, the boundaries of right and wrong are always being tested.

Conclusion

The notion that ‘the client is always right’ and defensible can easily cloud ethical judgment, and not just for lawyers – accountants can share a similar working relationship with their clients. Ultimately, the ethical code is there to protect not just the accountant, but clients, businesses and the public.

The information that accountants can hold about companies and people is often very sensitive. Accountants are expected to be trustworthy, compassionate and empathetic. They’re not to use misuse this information or to collude with clients for mutual gains – just look at the Enron scandal, which destroyed one of the world’s largest accounting firms.

From October 2017, ACCA is introducing its new Ethics and Professional Skills module, designed with input from employers to provide students with the ethical and professional skills the modern finance professional needs – find out more about the new Ethics and Professional Skills module.

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