Prison visits put ethics top of mind for students
1 April 2009
A Deakin University lecturer has put ethical behaviour top of mind for his accounting and auditing students, by taking them to one of the places they will end up if they get it wrong – prison.
Ethics expert, Associate Professor Steven Dellaportas, again took a group of students to prison where they interviewed accountants who have committed fraud.
While the visits are part of Associate Professor Dellaportas' research interest in accountants who end up in prison, feedback from the students indicates that the experience has helped them understand the roles and responsibilities of accountants, the ethical dilemmas they face and the consequences of illegal behaviour.
"Fraud is an ever increasing problem, yet little attention has been paid to why accountants commit fraud," Associate Professor Dellaportas said.
"Yet if the causes of fraudulent behaviour can be identified professional accounting bodies can target their educational and remedial programs to assist members who may face such difficulties. Similarly, if we understand the causes of fraudulent behaviour we may be able to spot the warning signs a little earlier."
Associate Professor Dellaportas said people expected auditors and accountants to minimise the potential for fraud yet Australian and New Zealand data from 2006 showed one half of Australian and New Zealand businesses experienced at least one fraud worth $155m in 2006 and $457m in 2004.
"While accounting graduates have highly regarded technical abilities, accounting educators have been challenged to teach students how to deal with the reality of being an accountant and the ethical challenges they will face," he said.
"Accountants are there to serve the public interest not self interest, yet the environments in which they work places enormous and continuous pressure on them to look after the entity rather than to do the right thing."
Associate Professor Dellaportas said people could argue that it was not possible to change behaviour in a 13 week course and that ethics was developed from a young age.
"What we try and do is make the students aware of the issues they are likely to face and provide them with a strategy to deal with those issues, as well as give them an understanding of the consequences of what will happen if they follow the wrong path," he said.
Associate Professor Dellaportas said for example at the beginning of the semester the students were presented with a scenario involving cheating on time sheets and asked if that was a problem.
"At the end of the semester they are able to say yes it is a problem and be able to justify it," he said. "Will it change their behaviour at the end of the day, I'd like to think that if they choose the wrong path they are making an informed decision rather than, as some of our research with inmates indicated just go along with it.
"While the visit to the prison certainly had an impact on the students their feedback indicated that it was 'eye-opening' and what the inmates had to say was something they would never forget.
"One of the students even suggested practising accountants should undertake such a field trip."
Associate Professor Dellaportas said current research on white collar crime covered a diverse area and included corruption, bribery and tax offences. Most of it tended to focus on senior executives.
"My focus is on the accountant. My research with the offenders has confirmed they experience financial pressure and they have the opportunity. When accountants commit fraud they intentionally break this trust that is given to them by their client or employer. They know the behaviour is unethical but they rationalise it by blaming the victim. So they say things like 'the victim is incapable of securing their assets, they deserve to have them stolen', or 'the Australian Taxation Office is a bureaucratic and faceless organisation, no-one is getting hurt."
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