Do you know your ethical alignment?
As an accountant, you’re required to abide by the law and remain compliant when performing accounting duties. Accountants can consider their ethical alignment to contemplate their accounting responsibilities.
Here at Gusto, we aim to give accountants the tools and information to expand their firms and assist clients. That’s why we, along with our partners at CPA Academy, delivered an informative webinar all about accounting ethics. Our presentation titled, “Ethics: How D&D, Venmo, and Hourly Billing Rates Shape Your Professional Ethics,” covered different considerations for improving your ethical behavior as an accountant. You can watch the entire presentation here.
In addition to this article, Part One of the webinar series, you can also read Parts Two and Three. Part Two discusses how cash and Venmo affect ethical behavior, and Part Three discusses how using billable hours impacts accountants’ behaviors.
Greg Kyte, founder of Comedy CPE, and Caleb Newquist, Editor-at-Large at Gusto, discussed the different ethical alignments and how they impact the accounting industry. In this article, you’ll learn helpful insights from Greg and Caleb’s presentation such as the different ethical alignments, the difference between lawful and good, and their implications in accounting.
Greg and Caleb used the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as a framework to discuss different behaviors within the accounting industry. D&D players utilize ethical alignments to build their imaginary characters.
“[You’re] pretending like you’re someone that you’re not, and part of what Dungeons & Dragons has evolved into … [is players] trying to create very well-defined, detailed characters. … This is [a] quote from one of the websites about Dungeons & Dragons: ‘Your alignment guides how your character acts and responds to situations. Alignments are a helpful guide for how your character generally acts and behaves. It can help you role-play your character in a way that feels authentic.’”– Greg Kyte
There are components involving the D&D character alignment types. Characters are either good, neutral, or evil.
“Neutral falls right in the middle of [being] not particularly good [and] not particularly evil. … Good implies altruism and concern for the dignity of human life, [and] good characters make personal sacrifices to help others. … Evil implies hurting and oppressing others. Some evil creatures or characters simply have no compassion [while] others actively pursue evil. … People who are neutral lack the commitment to make sacrifices to help or protect others.”– Greg Kyte
In addition to the good, neutral, and evil categories, character alignment also involves choosing between lawful, neutral, or chaotic.
“Lawful, you follow the rules. Chaotic, you follow your conscience. I think that kind of makes sense as a dichotomy of the two things. A chaotic person really doesn’t care what’s expected of them by society or by the people who are in charge of society. They’re going, ‘I am going to do what I want to do despite the laws.’ Then neutral is right in the middle. You’re not really particularly bent toward either one of these.”– Greg Kyte
D&D players classify characters combining the two components to create different variations such as chaotic good, lawful neutral, neutral evil, and other alternatives.
Greg observed that lawful isn’t synonymous with good, and this reflects real-world behaviors. Someone can follow the law while also engaging in unethical behavior.
“You can have a lawful evil character who follows the rules but is still a bad guy. … I think we’ve got to realize that just following the rules doesn’t make you good.”– Greg Kyte
Greg and Caleb noted examples of villainous characters who abide by the law, including the antagonists in Victor Hugo’s novels The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables, Monseigneur Claude Frollo and Javert. Frollo and Javert engage in unethical behaviors while remaining lawful.
Understanding the difference between lawful and good is important for engaging in ethical behavior. You can be compliant with the law while also harming others.
Are accountants lawful neutral?
Greg and Caleb’s discussion on D&D characters transitioned to covering accountants’ potential ethical alignments. They posed a question to their audience about whether accountants should care about others when performing their accounting duties. The majority of the audience stated that accountants should care about others, but Greg disagreed. He views accounting as fulfilling a job and considering the client objectively rather than caring about them:
“Should [accountants] care about others? … I’m going to say [between yes and no]. … Let’s look at both audit and tax [which are] the main two things that we’re doing. [As an accountant], I want to have my independence where I don’t care about my client, I care about getting the job done right.”– Greg Kyte
Greg speculated that the ideal character alignment for accountants is more neutral than good. He observed that accountants need to follow the law, but the profession doesn’t teach accountants to be altruistic:
“Good is where you’re going out of your way to make personal sacrifices for other people. … [One] of the things that has always struck me for all the years that I’ve taught professional ethics is we’re never talking about how [you can] give to marginalized peoples. We’re not saying part of professional ethics is [to] give a certain percentage of your salary to charity. We’re not saying professional ethics is [going to a] homeless shelter [or] volunteer to help the less fortunate. … A lot of times we’re specifically not supposed to care about our client.”– Greg Kyte
Although accountants need to follow the law strictly, the accounting process doesn’t necessarily involve caring about other people, meaning they would be lawful neutral.
Caleb disagreed with Greg’s accountant categorization. In his view, accountants protect the general public in company audits, meaning they’re lawful good rather than lawful neutral.
Arthur Andersen’s lawful character alignment
Accountants primarily fall under the lawful category, but some accounting firms could have been more ethical by engaging in more chaotic behavior, meaning that they follow their conscience rather than abiding by the rules exclusively. Greg noted that the defunct accounting company Arthur Andersen were lawful to a fault:
“They followed all the rules, and I feel like maybe they should have followed their gut at some point instead of just following the rules.”– Greg Kyte
Arthur Andersen was convicted for obstruction of justice because of its involvement in the Enron scandal. They shredded documents proving Enron’s guilt knowing that shredding the documents didn’t technically break standard accounting practices. The United States Supreme Court eventually reversed the obstruction charges because they remained compliant in their auditing practices, but the company had already suffered significant financial losses, and the scandal destroyed their reputation. They became defunct in 2002.
Although Arthur Andersen was still complying with standard practices when they shredded certain documents, they behaved unethically because the documents proved Enron’s guilt.
Ethics of an accountant
Abiding by the law doesn’t always correlate to engaging in ethical behavior. Greg speculated that the ideal alignment for an accountant might be true neutral, meaning that they’re between lawful and chaotic:
“Rules are important to us, but also doing the right thing is important to us. … Maybe true neutral is … for the ideal accountant. … I’d say true neutral with a bent toward lawful. A little neutral plus to the lawful side.”– Greg Kyte
With neutral rather than lawful, accountants abide by the law, but they’re also following their consciences. Although Greg speculated that accountants may be true neutral, Caleb and audience members didn’t agree with his assessment fully. Instead, they speculated that accountants lean toward lawful good.
Accountants don’t necessarily fall into one character alignment, and different accountants may view the profession’s ethics differently. The D&D character alignment framework isn’t a strict classification, but it’s a helpful way to think about how to engage in professional and ethical behavior.
“I think part of this is also a good way for you to reflect on what you think is important in terms of how you operate in your professional responsibilities.”– Greg Kyte
You can use the character alignment framework to consider how you navigate the accounting industry and assist your clients.
Learn more about accounting ethics
The D&D character alignment involves two separate classifications. The first classification is good, neutral, and evil, and the second classification is lawful, neutral, and chaotic. You can use the D&D character alignments to consider your ethical responsibilities as an accountant.
If you’re looking for more ways to improve your accounting firm, consider partnering with Gusto! When you become a Gusto partner, you get exclusive access to tools and resources to support your clients into the future. Streamline payroll and benefits, and start advising your clients in valuable new ways. Join Gusto’s Partner Program today.