Approaching a dilemma during a time of crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic requires an ethical approach to decision-making.

COVID-19 is causing widescale, unprecedented disruption to normal life, and organisations of all sizes and industries are affected.

Management accountants might find themselves confronting new ethical dilemmas in the face of this disruption. Can we afford to keep paying all our staff, or would it be better to let some go in order to protect the future of the business? Do we have enough money to continue with a project, or should we focus only on core business operations even though that significantly changes employees’ workloads? Can we give staff a pay rise this year, or would it be prudent to save the cash now in case the situation gets worse?

It can be hard to know how to approach a dilemma in the best of times, let alone in the current challenging climate. Here are some top tips for keeping your cool when faced with a difficult decision.

Take a step back

There are going to be difficult decisions in the months ahead. Under pressure it can feel that you need to make a decision immediately. However, decisions made without enough consideration will be affected by your emotions and stress levels and may be regretted later on.

Instead, ensure you take some time to consider the best course of action. You might be able to delay a decision by only a few minutes, but even this will give you some time to work through your thoughts.

CIMA’s ethics checklist is a good starting point for decision-making, taking you through a number of steps that will help you to consider the best course of action. Asking yourself questions such as “How would I feel explaining this to my partner/parents?” and “How would this look printed in a newspaper?” can be good ways of considering the potential future ramifications of a decision.

You should also consider CIMA’s Code of Ethics. Although it may not offer direct guidance on your ethical dilemma, the fundamental principles of professional behaviour, objectivity, and integrity may offer some general guidance. For example, the principle of professional behaviour requires professional accountants “to comply with relevant laws and regulations and avoid any conduct that the professional accountant knows or should know might discredit the profession”.

Talk it through

The saying goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved”, and it can certainly be true that talking a dilemma through with someone can help the solution become clearer. The other person might be able to offer advice or input, or in some cases even just the act of saying it out loud will be helpful in clarifying your thoughts.

“The right person to talk to will be different for each person,” said Nigel Davies, FCMA, CGMA, a CIMA member in practice who runs his own accountancy firm in Newport, South Wales. “It could be a colleague, a friend, or if the dilemma is related to the CIMA Code of Ethics, the CIMA ethics inbox. The important thing is that you don’t keep it bottled up inside.”

When it comes to the big decisions being made at the moment around things like job losses, make sure you include all the relevant people in the business in the discussion, and take expert advice where required. There may not be a perfect solution — there often isn’t where there is an element of ethics or morals in a dilemma. But by ensuring a range of people are involved who bring different perspectives, you are more likely to come to a decision that balances multiple viewpoints.

Explore your options

The current crisis is changing every minute. Before making any decisions about finances, jobs, or future business plans, make sure you are up to date with what support is available. In the UK, for example, the government has announced a huge rescue package that includes paying a proportion of wages of employees who would be laid off otherwise. Likewise, many governments are announcing packages of loans and grants available to small and medium-size businesses that are facing losses due to the coronavirus, and some governments are making support available to the self-employed.

“You are not alone,” Davies said. There is lots of advice available to help businesses understand what support is available, including official government advice, which varies by country. Intergovernmental organisations including the EU are also publishing information that could be of use in some countries and industries.

If there is any doubt over the legality of any actions and decisions, you should consider whether it is necessary to take legal advice.

Ensure you can explain your decision

When you have reached a decision on how to proceed, it is key that you are able to explain your reasoning. Employees may have questions, and someone will disagree with your approach. However, by documenting your thought process, ensuring you have done your research using reputable sources such as official government advice, backed up any financial decisions with robust data and projections, and discussed the decision with at least a few other people, you will be in a stronger position to justify any actions. Ensure you listen actively to any concerns raised, and lead with empathy when delivering any news to people that may impact their lives.

Useful resources:

Bryony Clear Hill is the associate manager–Ethics Awareness for CIMA and is based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at