Decision-making processes in the context of ethical dilemmas: a study of accountants in training

Peter Hughes

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


    The ability to make sound decisions when faced with ethical dilemmas lies at the heart of being a professional accountant. Yet many of the recent corporate reporting disasters demonstrate that, despite being over a century old, the accounting profession has yet to find a way of dealing effectively with ethics. This is reflected in the ethical training of accountants which tends to follow a rules-based approach to instruction, thereby producing accountants who are often criticized for being rules-followers at a time when many are calling for a more principles-based approach. Within a qualitative framework, the study explored the difficulties trainee accountants confront in constructing a decision-making process whilst seeking to maintain the stance expected of them by, inter alia, professional codes. This is in contrast to mainstream, mainly positivist, research efforts which measure those factors influencing accountants? and accounting trainees? decision-making. Rule-following and deference to one?s profession is regarded as symptomatic of low-level ethical awareness and impedes ethical development (Harris and Brown 1990). The study will therefore be of interest to educators and the profession alike, both of whom seek to have graduates enter the profession with high-level ethical awareness. This study adopts a social constructivist and interpretive research approach informed by structuration theory and uses vignettes to explore accounting trainees? decision-making processes. Semi-structured interviews were held with 12 BA (Honours) Accounting students in their final year of study. Field notes and participant feedback augmented interview data. Thematic analysis, coding and categorization applied through template analysis was used to explore both students? decision-making inclinations and the structural elements reported as impacting on decisions at a particular point in time. A cross-case comparison showed that, contrary to much of the literature, students adopted a principles-based approach to decision-making. This finding, in itself, may have far-reaching implications for the way in which ethics is taught, whether by business schools or by in-house organizational programmes.
    Original languageEnglish
    • Beadle, Ron, Supervisor
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - 4 Nov 2010


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