“There’s an inherent conflict of interest in public accounting.” —C. Richard Baker, Ph.D.

Ethics in BusinessEnron. Worldcom. These names invoke memories of massive accounting scandals and resulting bankruptcies. Today, as a result of these cases, there is more regulatory oversight of accounting and auditing practices. Yet, whether the accounting practice is more ethical than it was a decade ago remains up for debate.

C. Richard Baker, Ph.D., a professor at the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, has studied ethics in accounting for much of his academic career. He has written papers on the evolution of the code of ethics for accountants and book chapters on the different ways to evaluate whether accountants are serving the public interest. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest in public accounting,” he says. “Your client is the one who pays your bill, your fee, but you’re supposed to owe a duty to the shareholders and the general public.”

In his own research, Dr. Baker has used psychological testing to evaluate the ethics of undergraduate and graduate business students. An assessment he conducted while at the University of California Los Angeles, for example, showed that accounting students were more interested in making money than other students at the university. Later, he studied plagiarism tendencies among undergraduate and graduate business students at Bentley College and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

When teaching aspiring accountants in the School of Business, Dr. Baker says that he emphasizes ethics particularly in his auditing classes by reviewing the classic cases—i.e., Enron and WorldCom.

This piece appeared in the Erudition 2014 edition.

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