5 min read

Let's Talk About Ethics, Baby

Apr 24, 2020 5:01:37 PM


Gretchen Pisano, pLink Leadership founder and executive guru, is back to help us navigate through the ethics of PPP Loans, CARES Act, and whatever comes next. Let’s jump right in!

Ethics and Leadership: The Letter of the Law or the Spirit of the Law?

“Number one, you gotta be in the letter of the law. A decision that is illegal can totally unravel your life.” But what about the spirit of the law? Things get a little murkier in that department. According to Gretchen, “a decision that's unethical is in the eye of the beholder and the community in which you operate.” Takeaway: It's up to you to determine your ethical stand based on your values and your judgment. 



Determining your Ethics

Every financial professional goes through the CPE courses on the way to being credentialed. If you are having a hard time applying that education to what’s going on today, you are not alone. The old rule book is having a hard time adjusting. So, it falls on the shoulders of leadership to rewrite their firm’s ethical policies. 

Ethics wooden sign on a beautiful day | Botkeeper

When Gretchen teaches her leadership course, she has her participants take a character strength and assessment online quiz. She wants everyone to know their values, but also realize that there are 24 different character strengths. Value-based leadership, or ethical fundamentals, are a spectrum! So, when you're making an ethical decision, you do so based on a cluster of character strengths you personally value. That cluster informs your judgment, your ethics, and the character of your firm as a whole.

“Decisions that are in alignment with your values will be like fuel for you. You will feel like you are in integrity because you are. And as a result, you'll have more confidence, you'll be able to stand your ground, you'll be able to make braver decisions with more confidence.”

Have you ever made an uncomfortable decision? We all have. The question is: How did that decision play out? We want to encourage you to get to know your character strengths and values, and then make decisions that align. We believe that “decisions that are in alignment with your values will be like fuel for you. You will feel like you are in integrity because you are. And as a result, you'll have more confidence, you'll be able to stand your ground, you'll be able to make braver decisions with more confidence.”

If you are making decisions that are out of alignment, much like a poorly aligned car, you’re not moving with ease:

  1. It takes a ton of self-regulation, which is finite and can really exhaust your resources
  2. Making yourself do something that you don't actually believe in upsets your idea of yourself
  3. If it becomes a pattern and you end up becoming less effective as a human being 


Ethics and CPAs

 “...values-driven leadership culture for the path forward to sustainable business.”

Every firm has to make its own call based on their values. While surrounded by chaos, Gretchen encourages doubling down on “values-driven leadership, values-driven leadership teams, and a values-driven leadership culture for the path forward to sustainable business.”

So long as your firm’s values are well articulated and clear boundaries have been drawn around what is okay and what is not, you might find that you don't have to worry so much about being consistent because you are being who you are. “You're being courageously authentic. And each person has to make that decision for themselves.”


Ethics and Your Team

We love Gretchen because she keeps it simple! “Unethical behavior introduces risk into your business.” How clear is that? 

Yes, these are tough times. Yes, difficult decisions need to be made in a shrinking economy. But, you are tested and proven during the hard times, not the flush times. As a leader, the people in your firm are looking to you as their example. If the guiding criteria you are using to make decisions are money and business development, then you are going to see that choice reflected right back at you by the actions of your team. The risk therein is that your team may be introducing risk into your business outside your field of vision.

Gretchen’s Pointers For Establishing Your Firm’s Ethical Code:
  1. Know what your values are.
  2. Know what the values are that you ascribe to your organization.
  3. Build your team around these values, and be clear about expectations and behavior.
  4. Just like when you take an ethics course with your CPE, create a similar in-house format for your firm that lays out: Here's what's expected, and this is what it means to be part of this team.


Ethics and Your Clients

In the past week, Shake Shack returned its PPP money, Ruth’s Chris did not, and Harvard University was publicly shamed by President Trump for holding onto its PPP funds. It’s all very public, and it all hinges on the values of the client. How should CPAs relate to the ethics of our clients? 


Are you okay so long as you fit the letter of the law, or do your ethical standards outrun the law? After you’ve figured that out, there are basically three avenues CPAs can take as they face client calls. Gretchen, in her infinite wisdom, shows us the way.


Your client’s business is doing okay, but they are applying for a PPP. Here are your options:

  1. You can’t align the intention of the loan with the status of the business. Tell your client that you would be happy to continue working with them but that you cannot support their pursuit of government funds.
  2. Your client is by the letter of the law, but not by the spirit of the law. You will support them in pursuing government funds because it’s your job. But educate them on the back end. There will be repayment. It is not free money.
  3. You say no. Have a candid convo with your client explaining that you can't help them pursue government loans because it's outside of your values and comfort zone. Tell them it's legal and they are entitled, but you're not the firm to support them in their efforts.
We hope this has been informative! If you’re curious to see what your character strengths and core values are, check out the Via Institute on Character, and let us know if and how it has informed your leadership approach!

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Jody Padar

Written by Jody Padar

VP Strategy at Botkeeper, and the Radical CPA