Accountants globally have some revised ethics rules to follow, which should prompt an examination in the United States over whether there are new thresholds to meet.
The International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA) released a rewritten code of ethics for professional accountants that seeks to make the standard of behavior more explicit. The goal of the rewrite was to make the code easier to navigate, use, and enforce.
The IESBA says the fundamental principles of ethics have not changed with the revised code. Rather, it is the approach that will be used by professional accountants to identify, evaluate, and address any threats to compliance with the code of ethics, which includes requirements for independence.
“The ethics board tried to be responsive to many concerns heard over the years,” says Ken Siong, technical director at the IESBA. “We heard concerns from users across the spectrum, larger and smaller firms, about the understandability of the code, that it had become complex and the language was difficult to make sense of.”
Independence rules were a special area of focus, says Siong. “Independence rules can be complex, with a lot of relationships and interactions,” he says. “We heard from the regulatory community concerns that firms were basically trying to read their way around the rules, trying to find justification for perhaps actions or services that at a principal level are a question.”
The new code is written by a body under the International Federation of Accountants, which is an association of national accounting groups around the world, including the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. IFAC rules are not followed directly by U.S. accountants, but member bodies like the AICPA are required to conform their rules as much as possible to IFAC body requirements. The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission write their own ethics and independence rules for accountants and auditors operating in U.S. capital markets, but they also monitor global standards.
The IESBA says the revised code of ethics features stronger independence provisions regarding long associations of personnel with audit clients and new provisions for preparing and presenting information and for how to respond to pressure to breach fundamental ethics principles. It contains clearer guidance for accountants in public practice regarding provisions that are applicable to them and offers new guidance emphasizing the importance of understanding facts and circumstances when exercising professional judgment. It also explains how compliance with the fundamental principles supports the accountant’s exercise of professional skepticism in an audit, the IESBA says.
The new code incorporates international guidance on how accountants are to respond when they discover acts of non-compliance with laws and regulations, a provision that touched off a sensitive debate in U.S. circles over similar requirements for U.S. accountants. That debate is not yet settled in the United States, where the AICPA’s examination of U.S. standards is ongoing.