Human Capital & Careers

And Not a Moment Too Soon

Could an audit firm's crash course on ethics churn out principled professionals?
David McCannJanuary 1, 2008

Even as one new survey finds business ethics slipping to pre-Enron levels and another suggests that America’s teens are a little too willing to bend the rules in order to get ahead, a Big Four auditing firm has come forward with a teaching aid that aims to turn today’s college students into tomorrow’s upstanding professionals.

KPMG recently unveiled a program called “The Ethical Compass,” which consists of videos, case studies, and role-playing games that acquaint students with the kinds of ethical choices they will have to make in the real world.

“It’s all stuff that can and does happen from the time young accountants enter the workforce,” says Scott Szabo, an audit partner with KPMG in Charlotte, N.C., who recently served as co-instructor for a class at Wake Forest University. “They need to recognize ethical issues and take action before a violation occurs.”

A handful of colleges, including Wake Forest, UCLA, Boston College, and Bentley College, have signed on, with most of them cherry-picking components to augment existing programs that typically cover just one or two class periods.

But the full program could be developed into a semester-long ethics course, according to Blane Ruschak, national director for recruiting at KPMG. “We expect usage will significantly increase in the spring after schools have had time to figure out how this fits into their curricula,” he says.

The program obviously is intended as a recruiting tool, but Ruschak says KPMG also sees it as an opportunity to “give back to the academic community.” Szabo downplays a query as to whether an additional motivation stems from the firm’s 2005 settlement of a case in which it paid $456 million to avoid criminal prosecution for allegedly helping wealthy clients create illegal tax shelters.

Corporate America could use an ethics booster shot, if a survey by the Ethics Resource Center is any indication. It found rates of misconduct increasing, management awareness declining, and momentum behind corporate ethics and compliance programs deteriorating. Meanwhile a survey conducted by Junior Achievement and Deloitte found that 41 percent of teens believe one must act unethically in order to get ahead. In 2005 only 22 percent expressed that view.

Percent of employees who observed misconduct at work; companies with ethics and compliance programs
Employees score their companies' ethics compared to those of Corporate America