Published: Oct. 15, 2018


Today, we frequently hear of issues concerning fraud and embezzlement, which are regarded as blatantly unethical, but we don’t always consider what drove these people to such an unethical career. In his article, Ethics Expert, Felon Speaks to Accounting Students, Joe Cote explores Chuck Gallagher’s explanation as to how he became a felon, guilty of stealing $250,000 from clients.

Gallagher recently spoke to a group of accounting students at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) about ethics and the personal mistakes he made in his career. To explain how he began down this path, he asks the students how many of them believe voluntarily doing illegal activities to be wrong; everyone raised their hand. However, when he asked how many people drive over the speed limit, many of those same students raised their hands, despite the fact that they just agreed that such illegal activities constitute immoral behavior. The point of Gallagher’s question, Cote explains, is that “...most people will bend or break the rules if they can rationalize their behavior as acceptable.”

While Gallagher’s example is much less extreme than his crime, the message still stands. Often times we don’t define our own actions as unethical if we feel that they are only a small deviation from the ethical decision or somehow justifiable. Another example of such behaviors (given by a student) is parents lying to their children about Santa Clause. While this is lying, which most will agree constitutes unethical behavior, many argue that it is justified by the excitement felt by the children. Again, while this case is mild by comparison, it identifies the ‘gray areas’ within ethics by raising the question, “where do we draw the line?” 

Besides merely identifying boundaries, Gallagher insists that we need greater focus on discrediting people’s justification of these actions. This idea of warranting immoral actions is why Gallagher speaks to audiences like students at SNHU; he argues that “...while there are many tools and systems to limit an accountant's opportunity to commit fraud, there's not enough conversation about what allows them to rationalize their behavior.” By increasing conversation about this rationalization, he is trying to eradicate the problem at the source instead of implementing more consequences after the crime has been committed. 

Cote’s article encourages us to be mindful of ethics in our decision-making. We are also reminded that ethics are not always black and white, and we have to be careful that we don’t overstep boundaries by validating actions that we know to be wrong. If you wish to learn more about social responsibility and ethics, visit the CESR website or consider applying for the SRE certificate to compliment your business degree.