The effect of groupwork on ethical decision-making of accountancy students

Journal of Business Ethics 75 (3):215 - 228 (2007)
Recent accounting scandals involving the collapse of large corporate firms have brought into question the adequacy of ethics education within accounting programs. This paper investigates the ethical decisions of accountancy students and in particular analyses the effect of group (as opposed to individual) decision-making on ethical decisions. Final year accountancy students (sample size of 165) were randomly allocated into two experimental conditions. The participants were then presented with five (5) ethical vignettes. One experimental condition involved completing the ethical decisions as individuals (60). The other involved completing the ethical decision-making as a group of 3–4 participants (34). A consistent pattern of behaviour was observed in the analysis of individual versus group responses. Individuals displayed stronger tendencies than groups to take the extreme actions of acting either unethically or ethically (whistleblowing), whereas groups displayed stronger tendencies to take the safer (neutral) options. It was concluded that groups reached consensus decisions, in an ethical context, probably as a result of peer pressure. The significant implication of this finding is in relation to the emphasis accounting programs place on group work. Group work may enhance students’ abilities to work as a team. However, as revealed in this study’s results, group work may not be an effective means of producing the optimal decision in all subject matter areas, especially complex areas such as ethical decision-making.
Keywords ethics  final year accountancy students  groupthink  training  whistleblower
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