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Ethically Speaking: Theory vs. Practice - What Enhances Ethical Learning?

Nov 13, 2019

Trusted Advisors

If there was one thing my accounting professors were successful in drilling into my head as a young accounting major and CPA hopeful (and trust me, they needed an incredibly large drill to accomplish this), it was that ethics, character and trustworthiness were at the core of what it means to be a CPA. After all, our biggest differentiator as professionals is that we are trusted advisors. Remove the “trusted” and we’re less than useless to our clients and business partners. With this in mind, I would argue that keeping your ethical barometer honed is of the utmost importance. If you have been simply “checking the box” with your ethics CPE, you should consider new alternatives.

Theory vs. Practice: What Enhances Ethical Learning?

As an active CPA license holder, you are required to complete a minimum of 120 total hours of CPE during the three-year reporting period. Of these 120 hours, Indiana requires no less than four hours for each reporting period to be in ethics. In the past, this requirement was satisfied by sitting in a classroom or opening your web browser and listening to a lecture on independence requirements, professional skepticism or some other sub-category in the seemingly endless catalogue of ethical topics. It’s sad to say, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, very few of us will leave that session with an enhanced ethical understanding. This begs the question: what’s the point?

Different Paths to Meeting Ethics Requirements

Some types of education are about engaged learning and experiences—not hours—and these require practice. If you can remember back to being a young CPA working in your first job out of college, you likely recall the feeling of being completely and utterly overwhelmed. Why is that? You took all the classes, passed an incredibly hard exam and likely had an internship or two under your belt, and yet it was still a difficult transition into the world of accounting. It’s because you were accumulating educational “hours” but had little practice. Your continuing education works the same way.

So what exactly are we talking about?

Recently, Indiana approved alternative education that allows CPAs to gain ethics credit for license renewal through two additional options:

  1. Completing a CPA Excellence online interactive course on ethics. The primary difference between this course and the lecture style CPE is that you complete it by active participation, not by simply sitting in a classroom. It requires engagement and thoughtfulness to get through it, and you receive credit based off your participation as opposed to how long you take to complete the course.

  2. Volunteering in a non-compensated ethics capacity for a professional or trade organization, such as the INCPAS Ethics Committee or AICPA Ethics Committee. After all, for many of us, the ethical competence gained by being a part of such a committee far exceeds any learning that can be completed in a classroom.

Continuing professional education in the CPA profession has been hours-based for decades. I, for one, couldn’t be more excited about finally having new ways to learn that “count.”

Remember, the Ethics Committee is a resource if you ever find yourself in a questionable situation. The INCPAS Ethics Hotline is (317) 726-5000. 


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