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Back to basics: ethics of a financial manager.


Accountants with attitude, budgeteers with backbone, bean counters with bravado, bringers of the bank, kings and queens of costing, and your favorite financier at the end of the fiscal year. Like most of those reading this article, I too am a Financial Manager. We come in various forms with many names and work in numerous facets of America's everyday life.

From the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps to Federal employees that work for the Department of Defense, State employees that work for local government, contractors, and even in private sector businesses, we can be found. We account for every dollar, budget as a backup plan, resource every requirement and revel in being right, right? Well, with all that respect comes great responsibility and it stands to reason that we all have a firm grasp on what guides our moral and ethical compass. Together, let's discuss the ethics behind what we do in our day-to-day dealings and where we can focus our efforts to improve our community of Financial Managers as a whole.

A Comptroller's Code of Ethics

Some may ask, "Well, where do you start when discussing ethics in the Financial Management community?" The most logical place would be to begin with a Comptroller Code of Ethics. You can find plenty of them in many of your organizations, right? The question is, how far do you have to look? I am sure they can be found on your computer under a well-organized and superbly ordered local shared drive for all to access. I am sure there is a hardcopy Code of Ethics in a document protector-laden, multi-tab, three-ring monstrosity of a binder that would rival the Affordable Care Act in length and breadth. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most of us. By and large, your operational tempo may be so outrageously high that you do not have time, nor inclination to remove yourself from the stress and strain of day-to-day business to focus on ethical improvement for fear that all will be lost and your impregnable walls of Financial Management perfection would come tumbling down. Even if you are one of the lucky few that has been provided or developed your own Code of Ethics for your organization, it is most likely buried under printouts of T-accounts, high-speed pivot table spreadsheets and immaculately colored pie charts that you just spilled your morning joe all over fifteen minutes before your brief to a senior leader. Yes, we all know that Financial Managers are inoperable without this black liquid nectar bestowed upon us by the Gods of Get-R-Done. The time spent cleaning up the spilled mess, coupled with a short but comprehensive freaking-out period could have been much more value added if it was spent putting some time and effort into reevaluating and improving our ethical avenue of approach. We have to constantly get better, so dedicating this time in our busy schedules is key.

In the simplest terms, a Code of Ethics is meant as a set of rules that provide an easy-to-follow guide to your team of personnel and it is intended to govern your organization's moral compass. Scope and audience must be considered when developing or updating your Code of Ethics, as a "one size fits all" approach may lead to problems down the road. These problems can be attributed to the fact that most organizations are different and face situations that dynamically change as they move from one cubicle to the next.

A great place to start the process of implementing a new Code of Ethics for your organization would be to find the inventor of the wheel and ensure that you do not recreate his/her masterpiece. This means avoid your first inclination to blankly stare into space for hours on end thinking of how to develop something out of thin air that is more than likely already in existence (hopefully, I am not the only one in this population). Everyone has a boss or a higher command in the world we live in, so whoever that may be for you, simply request they provide you a template that can be easily adapted to fit your organizational structure and its specific subtleties. This has the three-fold benefit of uniformity by mirroring the organization for which you work, showing that you support your higher-level intent, and relieving yourself of the stress of wheel invention followed by spontaneous brain shutdown due to blank stare syndrome. Let's face it, there will be organizations where the reality is that your boss may not have an easy-to-use template to tailor to your tantalizing tastes. In these instances, your favorite search engine of choice will do the job just fine. There are a plethora of examples for a decent Code of Ethics on the internet that can meet your need.

Moreover, it is well worth it to mention that there just so happens to be a Pledge of Professionalism at the start of every Armed Forces Comptroller journal you have had the pleasure to put your hands on. Therein, all members of the American Society of Military Comptrollers have pledged to hewn around ensuring public trust, eliminating impropriety, abstaining from unethical personal gain, cultivating moral character and knowledgebase, treating others as you would like to be treated and networking to improve the quality of life within our profession. This pledge provides a significant framework from which you can ground your newfangled aspirations of diving into the ethical pool of enlightenment.

If you already have an internal Code of Ethics in place, updating it should be an annual requirement if you want to ensure it remains relevant to our ever-changing environment. It should preferably begin with an internal audit to identify existing shortfalls and opportunities for improvement. As a Financial Manager, you should focus this internal evaluation on things such as awareness, training, non-compliance and "buy-in" to name a few areas. For example, does everyone in your organization have a copy of your Code of Ethics readily accessible? Numerous organizations make it standard practice to have all employees save this document to respective local desktops so that it can be accessed any time there is a question or scenario which may require ethical pursuit to be applied. Now obviously, having a document on your desktop is not going to make you an ethical impresario when on-the-spot situations arise. That said, your initial audit should check for a comprehensive training plan (CTP). Having a forward leaning stance on ethics training is of paramount importance to the ethical success of your organization. There should be numerous elements of dynamic applicability within a CTP's scope to ensure it is all-inclusive in nature. The intent in having a comprehensive training plan is to keep your ethical codes positioned at the intellectual forefront of those out-of-practice minds that may not be as quick to the moral draw as well-practiced minds with a regular training regimen. Annual refresher training on Ethics in the workplace is a standard practice amongst the Armed Forces and most government organizations. In many private sector jobs within the Financial Management community, you will find that this training is provided on a quarterly basis, so if you do not have an effective training program in place, an internal audit can clue you in to this and identify what improvements should be made. Let us not forget, practice makes perfect.

An internal audit done early in the process of updating your Code of Ethics should also show those who are not in compliance with your ethical codes by identifying those who have not developed or cannot access their own local copy, those who have not been trained on ethics, and those who have not met their requirement for refresher training. An additional benefit is the option to have auditors execute in-person interview sessions that can indicate if supervisors are emphasizing ethics in daily operations. These interviews will also show if all your senior leaders have truly "bought-in" to the ethical awesomeness you are putting down or they are calling you a "jive turkey" behind your back. A tertiary benefit of climate surveys is that you are often times provided insight and opportunity to gauge if your Code of Ethics are truthfully beneficial to your organization or simply a thinly veiled, check-the-block product. A very large part of developing and maintaining a Code of Ethics is ensuring that it is influential and effective. If it is not effective, it is ignored and if ethics are ignored in your workplace, then you are doomed to mission failure from the start.

"Alright that is enough. Give me the magic formula," you say. Well if you were paying attention, there is no cookie-cutter answer to what should comprise your Code of Ethics. As usual, keeping it simple is always the best practice. Like a house built on sand, your ethical code must not be rooted on an unstable foundation. Most successful organizations have their own creed or list of values that embody their operation and focus their personnel to that end goal of success. The incorporation of these values as part of your Code of Ethics are always a great foundational outline to follow in order to ensure you are on the right track. In my experience as a United States Army Officer, I have found that the Army Values are the perfect litmus test to evaluate if your ethical code is well-rooted and covers all bases. There will always be an ethical dilemma or issue for your given operational environment relative to your organizational set of values that should be addressed in your ethical code. Using your already developed creed or values as a sacrosanct framework will lead you in the right direction. Some subjects that you would want to include as a Financial Manager are conflicts of interests (private interests vs. public business), integrity when resourcing requirements, maintaining a fair and unbiased budgeting posture, adherence to regulatory guidance (flexibility and deviation), gifts and donations, release of information, specific non-tolerable business practices, properly pursuing opportunities for cost saving, and consequences for non-compliance and unethical behavior. This is not a comprehensive list, so take it as such and make it your own.


Remember that a Code of Ethics should bolster the ethical decision making process as well as inspire those in your organization to do what is right; not for the benefit of an individual, but for the good of the group. My Grandma would say "you catch more bees with honey." So remember, rewarding those who actively pursue and promote a positive ethical dialogue is just as, if not more, important than prosecuting those that violate your Code of Ethics. We in leadership positions tend to forget the members of our team that put in the tireless hours and complete the commonly unrewarded tasks that improve our ethical bearing because we naturally focus on those who are not in compliance with the standards we have set in place. Like many things in life, there is an elusive and ever-changing balance to be struck. This can be done in many ways that do not require very much effort or approval at higher levels. The easiest is a simple, "Thank you for doing what was right." During my military career, I have seen and been a part of writing what we commonly refer to as "Impact Awards." Officially, they are Army Achievement Medals (AAM) but the colloquial term of "impact award" is fairly self-evident, as well as applicable to our ethical discussion. If you made a positive impact on a mission or for a specific term of service, someone should reward you for that effort. Likewise, assisting your organization in upholding the ethical standards that improve our close-knit community of Comptrollers is a valid and full-time mission that deserves reward. As another example, a Certificate of Appreciation is simply ink printed on a nice piece of paper, but when presented to someone in a manner that shows honor, respect and appreciation for their selfless service, it can become an effective weapon to combat the enemy that is ethical ambiguity and promote a morally sound climate within your office.

Ethical Enlightenment Among Financial Managers

How can we actively pursue the task of improving ethics within the Financial Management community? The answer to this question is fairly unpretentious and is the easy answer to most questions asked nowadays: network. Most already know the advantages of meeting new individuals in the Financial Management community and actively seeking membership to organizations like The American Society of Military Comptrollers. The ability to coalesce around individuals of like minds and similar ethical baselines presents a significant opportunity for discourse that will prove beneficial to our community. Not only membership in an interrelated community will suffice, but actively engaging that community in discussions focused on combining effort to improving ethics as a Financial Manager is key. Yes, group think is frightening when put in the context of overgrown insect-like alien invaders looking to colonize our home planet, but when put in the context of engaging a group of fellow financial managers in honest dialogue about important aspects of improving our community as a whole, there is no need to fret. Also, the pursuit and attainment of an applicable professional certification lends itself to your relevance as a subject matter expert in our field and provides an additional community to access for ethical development purposes. Finally, exercise that cranium on your shoulders and expand your ethical knowledge base. Read professional journals, subscribe to magazines like this one to stay up-to-date on current happenings, research top public and private sector forums for examples on how to apply your newfangled ethical expertise to situations you come across, start a blog or newsletter in your own organization for the advancement of moral thinking and continue on to conquer the world. Okay, maybe the last idea was a little farfetched, but everything else is easily achievable.

In closing, if you do not have a Code of Ethics for your organization, write one. If you do have a Code of Ethics in place, then you are ahead of the game. Dust it off and revamp it on an annual basis, at a minimum. An internal audit of your ethical codes and climate will pay for itself when all is said and done. Remember to ensure your Code of Ethics is readily available and accessible by all within your team and keep it as simple and straight forward as possible. Practice makes perfect, so train your personnel regularly and lead by example with a high moral standard of your own. Build your ethical agenda on solid ground and use your organizational creed and values as the framework. Listen to my Grandma and reward those that are actively engaged in improving your ethical climate and look to you for approval, respect, and an example to follow. Become a member of a professional organization and champion ethical discussions. Lastly, feed the beast that governs the moral decisions you make and ethical compass you hold; your brain.

Major Sean K. Cook

Major Sean K. Cook is the Budget Officer for 412th Theater Engineer Command in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He served previously as the Theater Banking and E-commerce Officer for the CENTCOM AOR, is a certified Analytic Cost Expert and a current member of the American Society of Military Comptrollers Great River Chapter.
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Author:Cook, Sean K.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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