Bennet Tchaikovsky, CPA, Esq. is of our guest authors who shares his instruction successes with our professors. This is part of an article series on how to make accounting more personal to students.
Accounting Ethics is now a required course to become a licensed Certified Public Accountant (“CPA”) in California. Teaching Accounting Ethics has been one of my greatest joys as an instructor as I have been able to “flip” the classroom (where the students are teaching each other during the classroom sessions) and I have learned more from my students in doing so. For example, learning about GlassDoor came from teaching Accounting Ethics as the former employee reviews were a significant part of their presentation. Here are some of my thoughts on teaching the class.
You can’t teach a grown up ethics...unless you have a hot tub time machine or a modified Delorean
Our moral foundation is created while we are growing up. Also, as an instructor, I cannot go back in time and tell my students not to cheat on a test when they were 13, sneak the extra cookie from the Albertson’s, or not lie to their parents. Therefore, my goal in teaching accounting ethics is to give my students a framework so that they can successfully navigate workplace challenges they will encounter, and to expose them to various situations so that they begin to look outside of themselves while working through problems.
This is also a great opportunity for you to develop relationships with students that will go beyond the classroom. Remember: you only have your students for a semester, however, the relationship can last a lifetime. My goal is to assist as many students as I possibly can in the hopes that my former students will come back to my school and give my future accounting students employment opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Ethics is all around us and extremely important for accountants
Prior to teaching full time, I worked for over 20 years in a variety of industries and have great stories that I can share. Talking about your own personal “war stories” is critical so that students feel as though they are not alone. Alternatively, find real life stories that are personal to you.
Remember why ethics is now required to become licensed: money can make individuals and organizations blind to the consequences of the choices they are making. CPA’s need to be the calming, logical influence over individuals and organizations who are ready take action if needed.
Choose the right textbook for you and your students
I have taught with two textbooks. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. However, the book that I am using right now is Gordon Klein’s Ethics in Accounting: A Decision-Making Approach (Wiley 2016). Gordon was one of my instructors when I took the Dauberman CPA Review back in 1991 (where Roger got his start) and Gordon has done an excellent job in creating a textbook that simplifies a subject that can be unnecessarily overcomplicated. The book reads great and most importantly, the price is right for the student: $38.40 to buy and $34.56 to rent on Amazon (as of October 31, 2017). https://www.amazon.com/Ethics-Accounting-Decision-Making-Gordon-Klein/dp/1118928334
As far as the instructor materials are concerned, you will not get chapter specific power-point slides or a “WileyPlus” / “Connect” tool to assign online homework. For instructors, there is a multiple choice test bank as well as slides for the questions at the back of the book. The questions at the end of each chapter are nothing short of amazing: simple on the outside, but have great depth as you read into them.
After lecturing during class, I then have the class break up into groups to answer the end-of-chapter questions. After the group has met and crafted their response, the class goes over the cases collectively. These questions are what differentiate the textbook from others.
Alternatively, you can consider teaching the class from the headlines. Each week, there are plenty of stories to go around: Wells Fargo (endless), Harvey Weinstein, NFL players/owners, and Astros making facial gestures. Each one of these and many other events can lead to greater conversations. I would suggest that if you go this route, forward articles, etc. to them prior to class so they are ready for the discussion.
Corporate Codes of Conducts and Corporate Governance Requirements for Listed Companies
Every publicly traded company on the NYSE/NASDAQ must post and make available their codes of conduct (ethics) and other governance documents. The source documents are great to use, especially when a company has had an ethical collapse. This is where you dive into whether the code of ethics is “window dressing” or if the “tone from the top” starts with the Board of Directors, CEO, CFO and then works downward. Also, by exposing your students to these requirements now, when they start their careers in public accounting, they will have more familiarity with the exchange requirements.
Don’t overtake the classroom conversation
When teaching ethics, I sometimes feel as though I am giving an accounting sermon on the podium holding up the stone tablets inscribed with the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. This works for part of the classroom lecture. But remember: your students need to lead and be a significant part of the classroom conversation. They will be leaving to go amongst the wolves and will need to fend for themselves shortly, so have them start thinking about how to resolve problems now. You are the “ringmaster”; not the “ring leader”.
Great documentaries to use
There are also a lot of documentaries that can be used for the class. Just be sure that you have the license to use these and that the videos are closed captioned. Most libraries have “Films On Demand” where the following can be found:
“The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby” is an excellent film about the Director of the CIA who was personally conflicted in terms of what he could and could not say to Congress. This documentary is especially important as CEO’s and CFO’s are constantly tested as to what they can and cannot say to investors….this is something that your students will remember as they ascend the corporate ranks.
“Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words” is by far one of the best out there. The film has the audio tapes recorded in the White House along with television footage showing our former President not being completely truthful in his disclosures. Also, the video illustrates that when you try to compartmentalize staff and do not share everything with everyone, mayhem can ensue and eventually bring down the person at the top.
“The Iceman and the Psychiatrist” is very disturbing yet effective in showing moral relativism and how a person justified killing over 200 people without remorse. You will need to caution your students about watching this video and give them an alternative to watch. In any event, this video will bring up the discussion of corporate CEO’s and how they can justify what they do.
Individual presentations- one of the best experiences I have had as an instructor
While attending a teaching conference, I was somewhat frustrated as other disciplines have seemingly more opportunities than accounting for greater student involvement. However, teaching accounting ethics has given me the best solution: by having students give presentations to the classroom that are of interest to them, your students will want to perform research and will be improving their soft skills. Here is an email that I send to my students before the first day of class:
For the first day of class, you have no reading or other assignments to complete. Rather, I want you to think of an ethics topic that you would like to present to the class that is of personal interest to you. Each student will give a 10 minute presentation (unless it’s amazing - then you can go longer) and will be your own work. I’ll be providing a rubric so that you can see how I grade the presentations. I do not take points off for being nervous….rather, I will take points off if the presentation is not your own and you are reading directly from slides. Another reason why I have students present is to develop soft skills. Surveys of recent employers all state that soft skills are lacking from recent graduates.
The other part of the presentation is that classroom attendance is encouraged: 20%-40% of exam points come from multiple choice questions that are based on the student presentations. Yes, I have to write new questions each semester, but the impact it has on students and how I continue to learn makes the presentations very worthwhile.
Choosing topics and presentation content
Each semester, students must select unique topics. Topics that students have given during class have included: business psychology, business practices in Japan, ethics of hunting, elder abuse, Lance Armstrong, steroids in sports, how tales from the Brothers Grimm have been butchered into kids films, SeaWorld, NCAA and the non-paid athlete, the right to die, charismatic megafauna, and traditional vs. no-kill animal shelters.
Do any of these relate to accounting ethics? No. However, they are personal to the students and offer an opportunity for students to learn from others about topics they never have heard of and open the door into accounting ethics. Most of my former students remember the presentations and not as much in terms of the case studies.
Students can also use limited video in their presentations, but the presentations cannot be overly-biased. I had a student give a presentation that used clips exclusively from one of the major news networks (CNN or FOX News) and the presentation came out very much one sided. I prefer the students to give the presentation and then have the class ask questions.
If you run into trouble (for example, I had a student talking about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and she compared this to women in Iran), you may start Accounting War III: Ethics Edition. Therefore, if you find students becoming upset, be sure to give them the opportunity to present the other viewpoint.