Embedded professionals: pain in the neck or grit in the oyster?

19 May 2021

Tags: Code of Ethics

Read the latest blog by Prof. Chris Cowton, IBE's Associate Director (Research).

Many organisations employ people who are subject to a professional code of ethics – an under-considered resource for promoting ethical business.

The word ‘profession’ is often used quite loosely. Any occupation, it seems, can now be referred to as a profession, even … well, I won’t give an example, because I don’t want to offend. But if we look at what distinguishes traditional or ‘true’ professions, such as law or accountancy, from other occupational groups, we see that the key characteristics fall into two broad categories: competence and ethics. It would be an unusual professional body that didn’t have a published code of ethics or claim to have highly specialist skills.

It is comforting to know that professionals are supposed to be both competent and ethical, even if things can occasionally go wrong. I think it’s striking that the wayward cases that come to light and get publicity tend to be those in the external adviser category (e.g. auditors). We hear rather less about professionals who, for better or worse, work within companies. I refer to these employees as ‘embedded’ professionals. Commentators on professions and professional ethics should give them more attention. In the case of accountancy, for example, far more qualified accountants are employed by businesses or other organisation than work in audit firms, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to public debate. And it’s not just accountants. In many organisations, there are all sorts of employees who are professionally qualified. Because they are subject to a code of ethics, these employees are in an excellent position to promote ethical business.

However, some would point to a potential fly in the ointment. It has sometimes been said that there is a risk that a professional’s code of ethics will conflict with the code of ethics of the organisation that employs them. I’d like to see some specific examples of this problem because I think they would be very interesting to analyse. However, I think that, in the vast majority of cases, there won’t be any such tension, and a committed professional will be able to follow both their professional code of ethics and the corporate code. 

The more plausible tension occurs when someone in an organisation wants a colleague to do something that is contrary to their professional code of ethics. For example, sticking with accounting, this might be turning a blind eye to a suspect expense claim or being a bit creative with booking revenues or profits. In the research literature, this kind of tension or dissonance is called ‘organisational-professional conflict’. The professional might demur, pointing to their obligations under their code of ethics. Sometimes this is enough, but if the pressure is sustained, it can get unpleasant for the professional involved. They should be able to turn to their professional body for help, but the key point I want to make here is that each victory for professional standards is almost certainly a victory for ethical business. To the person kept on the right track, the professional might seem like a pain in the neck; but to the business they should be viewed as grit (if that’s not too unflattering) in the organisational oyster, producing ethical pearls.

So, if you’re in a position to do so, I would encourage you to invite your professionally qualified colleagues to talk about the professional ethics that they bring to the table. And if you are a professional, I would encourage you to think about how your code of ethics applies to your current organisational role. This might include reflecting on incidents that you’ve experienced in the past, but it would also be a good idea to think ahead about the ethical risks you could face and what you might do about them. And if you’re working for an organisation that currently doesn’t have its own code of ethics, perhaps the wisest first step would be to encourage it to develop one.


Professor Chris Cowton
Professor Chris Cowton

Associate Director (Research)

Following a long career of leadership, teaching and research in the higher education sector, Chris joined the IBE in 2019 with a remit to strengthen its widely respected applied research and thought leadership, and a specific role of further developing our engagement with the education sector. In pursuit of the IBE's mission to base its work on high quality, relevant research, he now also leads on our training and advisory services.

Chris Cowton is Emeritus Professor at the University of Huddersfield and Visiting Professor at Leeds University’s Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre. He was previously Professor of Accounting (1996-2016), Professor of Financial Ethics (2016-2019) and Dean of the Business School (2008-2016) at Huddersfield, having joined after ten years lecturing at the University of Oxford.

He is internationally recognised for his contributions to business ethics, especially his pioneering work on financial ethics.  In 2013 he was awarded the University of Huddersfield’s first DLitt (Doctor of Letters, a higher doctorate) in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of knowledge in business and financial ethics.

He is the author of more than 70 journal papers, has edited three books and has written many book chapters. He was Editor of the journal Business Ethics: A European Review for a decade (2004-2013).

He is also a visiting professor at University of the Basque Country, Bilbao (Spain), and has been a visiting professor at the University of Bergamo (Italy) and a member of the Ethics Standards Committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (2009-2018).

You can read Chris's extensive bibliography here

Discussion of ethics in public life, including business, often makes unhelpful sweeping generalisations that take us nowhere. ‘Politicians are only in it for themselves’, ‘businesses manipulate consumers’, etc. Such comments describe one end of a spectrum, perhaps, but they do a disservice to those who are trying to do so much better. The IBE plays a key role, in supporting high standards of business behaviour and I am delighted to use my research expertise to contribute to that mission.

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