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The success of a business depends largely on its accounting. The role of Accounting in a business can be compared to the role the vertebral column in an organism. It is the spine, the backbone of every business. When well handled, it keeps the business profitable. Like every other professional field, professional accounting is governed by a set of principles which guide the accountant in the performance of his/her task(s). These principles are inscribed in the context of a code of ethics which rules the behavior of the professional and sets up a code of conduct which regulates behavior in the field. Ethical behavior itself is affected by several factors. When speaking specifically about a career, one of the most influential factors on ethical behavior are gender and education. The extent to which these factors influence ethical behavior for any given career has received widespread attention in recent years. The accounting field is not left out. The task is to show that there exists a liaison between accounting and the way gender, (sex) and education affect ethical behavior.
What is accounting?
Accounting is defined as a manner or style of presenting information about the financial position of an enterprise.
Ethical and professional accounting forms a clear financial image of a business, and allows managers to make informed decisions, keeps investors abreast of developments in the business, and keeps the business profitable.1
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The accounting language is used in the financial operations of all organizations.
This is because the information required by most organizations is very similar
and can be broken down into three main categories:2 operating information; financial accounting information; managerial accounting information.
Operating information is relative to the day-to-day running of the organization. Pay tracks, information of the evolution of liabilities and assets, inventories on goods, follow-up of customers and suppliers; these are only a few of the day-to-day activities in an enterprise. Financial accounting information on its own part concerns information such as the evolution of liabilities and assets. This information is used by stakeholders to analyze the progress of the organization in attaining its set objectives. In this light, shareholders would want to know if they would be benefiting from the business while banks who want to know if their money would be refunded. All information relative to financial accounting is arranged in what is known as bookkeeping. In effect, booking can be defined as:
maintenance of systematic and convenient records of money transactions in order to show the condition of a business enterprise. The essential purpose of bookkeeping is to reveal the amounts and sources of the losses and profits for any given period. Proper bookkeeping should also reveal the nature and value of the assets and liabilities of a firm, as well as its net worth at the close of that period.3
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Managerial information is provided to the managers of the organization in a well prepared and easy to comprehend form so as to enable them make informed decisions that would shape the future of the enterprise or organization.
As a result of its importance, the accounting of an enterprise is imperatively handled by a professional (accountant) whose (professional) work ‘requires specialized and theoretical knowledge, acquired through college training or comparable work experience’.4
Professional work in accounting … requires the examination, analysis and interpretation of records. Examples of such work include the:
• modification and implementation of manual and automated accounting systems to meet the specific fiscal requirements of an agency,
• development and revision of policies to improve accounting control and efficiency, and
• formulation of internal controls to ensure the reliability and security of funds and data. (cf 4)
Professional accounting work is guided by a set of principles which regulate the activities of the accountant so as to permit him/her to provide accounting information of the highest standards.
The French Code of Commerce (Code de Commerce) outlines six main accounting principles. It is a matter of the principles outlined by French law n°83-353
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of April 30, 1983, decree n°83-1020 of November 29, 1983, relative to the accounting obligations of merchants and certain companies. The code gives the six-fold explanation as follows:
a) Principle of permanence of methods (art. 123-17 C. Com, PCG art. 120-4): choice of a method of evaluation of stocks, the same duration of duration for similar immobilizations…
b) Nominalism (art. 123 18 C.Com): depreciation is calculated on the basis of the entry value into the patrimony, original value, except in particular cases
c) Non Compensation (art. 123-19 C. Com) :supplier advance (payments) have to appear on the asset side of the balance sheet and are not to be subtracted from the supplier account
d) Prudence (art. 123-20 C. Com, PCG art. 120-3): the events which are likely going to reduce the value of the patrimony of the enterprise have to be taken into consideration, notably the depreciation of stocks. Events posterior to the date of closure of the accounting exercise have to be taken into account, if they are known at the moment of establishment of the accounts
e) Continuity of the activity (art. 123-19 C. Com): artificial breaks in the exploitation bring about carrying back of historic costs which shall be absorbed by future activity…
f) Specialisation of accounting exercises (art.123-21 C. Com, IASC 1): products and charges have to be attached to a specific accounting exercise, even if
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there exists a shift between consumption and billing. As such, the account of third parties, stocks, regularization, have to be used. 5
Even though mainly used in the United States of America, the term Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) refers to:
The common set of accounting principles, standards and procedures that companies use to compile their financial statements. GAAP are a combination of authoritative standards (set by policy boards) and simply the commonly accepted ways of recording and reporting accounting information. 6
The application of the accounting principles such as outlined by the French Code of Commerce permits a true presentation of a ‘faithful image’ of the enterprise.
Relative to the faithful image of the enterprise, the French Code of Commerce states that: ‘the balance sheet, the result account and the annex have to be composed of as many rubrics and posts as necessary to give a faithful image to the patrimony, the financial situation and the result of the enterprise’ (Art. 123-15 Code de Commerce.)
The application of the accounting principles alone is not enough to restrain intentional or unintentional financial fraud in the domain of accounting. The legality and morality of accounting principles is therefore not a major issue. The main thing is the setting up a code of ethics which governs the way financial information is handled within organizations. It is this issue that has been topic of important debates around the world for the past century. How to set up regulations that would easily
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identify and knock-out intended or unintended fraudulent behavior has been a daunting task. In the USA and the Western world at large, the breakthrough came
in 2001, after Enron was found guilty of accounting fraud, the business world took a closer look at ethics in accounting and has since then implemented many ways to curtail fraudulent financial reporting. Due to poor reporting of financial numbers, businesses have to adhere to a code of conduct (GAAP) issued by the AICPA and their constituents’. In effect, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) ‘The AICPA, with collaboration from the Business & Industry Executive Committee (BIEC), has therefore, presented accountants with an “Ethics Decision Tree” to give guidance to professionals that encounter immoral business behavior and gives them a step by step way of dealing with such issues’. 7
Before attempting a comprehensive analogy of the role of ethics in professional accounting it is important to understand the whole concept of ethics, its ramifications and ethics in accounting (or accounting ethics).
Ethics is all about what is right or wrong usually in a specific context. As such, ethics is applicable in almost all domains: career ethics, driving ethics; classroom ethics; civil society ethics; advocacy ethics; business ethics; political ethics; communal ethics; accounting ethics.
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…Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well founded reasons.
Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one\'s ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one\'s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.8
Professional Accounting Ethics
Accounting ethics is all about what is right or wrong in the field of accounting. Accounting is governed by a set of principles but often, unintended and intended
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fraud occurs. Such fraud obviously puts the existence of the enterprise in jeopardy and can lead to a financial crash. Unethical behavior in an organization will destroy an organization’s capability of making profits. The organization’s success must be the primary objective of the professional accountant. Where success becomes secondary in the ‘scale of preference’ of work in professional accounting, the (business) organization is obviously heading for doom. In the accounting sphere, no other interest, be it personal or relative to the client, should override the objectives of accounting. As such, ‘any consideration of the client\'s interests must be subordinated to a greater duty--the duty owed to third parties and to the public’.9 Michael Josephson identifies ‘Ten Universal Values’ in accounting and its practice: honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, fidelity, fairness, caring, respect for others, responsible citizenship, pursuit of excellence, and accountability.10
The purpose of ethics in business is to direct business men and women to abide by a code of conduct that facilitates, if not encourages, public confidence in their products and services. In the accounting field, the AICPA maintains and enforces a code of professional conduct for public accountants. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) also maintain a code of ethics. Professional accounting organizations recognize the accounting profession\'s responsibility to provide ethical guidelines to its members.11
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A code of ethics or conduct in the accounting domain is not an inborn attribute for accountants. It is something that is acquired through learning or practice. It is in this light that the AICPA came up with the
‘Ethics Decision Tree’ ‘to give guidance to professionals that encounter immoral business behavior and give them a step by step way of dealing with such issues. The first step is to identify the issue with the preparation of financial documents and then to see if the issue is in violation of AICPA ethical standards. If it is, then it is your duty to ask for your company’s guidance, if you are unsatisfied with the answer, you then need to talk to your manager. If you are continuously unhappy with the answer your manager gives or upper management gives, go directly to the Board of Directors. If you are still unsatisfied with the answer you are receiving, the “Ethics Decision Tree” states that you should seriously think whether or not it is in your best interest to be employed by the company.cf7
Ethics obviously play a major role in the accounting field. The above explanation of accounting ethics implicitly explains this fundamental role.
Role of Ethics in Professional Accounting and Code of Ethics or Conduct in Professional accounting
Ethics plays a major role in regulating behavior in professional accounting. Accounting Ethics sets up a code of conduct which curtails fraudulent maneuvers in
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accounting. Practicing ethical behavior in accounting makes accounting data relevant, reliable, comparable, and consistent. A code of ethics or conduct in accounting will therefore be a set of guidelines that establish mechanisms to verify the veracity of accounting data relative to:
Relevance: Accounting information is relevant if it is capable of making a difference in a decision. To be relevant, information should have predictive or feedback value, and it must be presented on a timely basis.
Reliability: Accounting information is reliable to the extent that users can depend on it to represent the economic conditions or events that it purports to represent. To be reliable, information must be verifiable, representationally faithful, and neutral.
Comparability: Accounting information that has been measured and reported in a similar manner for different enterprises is considered comparable.
Consistency: Accounting information is consistent when an entity applies the same accounting treatment from period to period to similar accountable events.
Economic entity assumption: The economic activities of an entity can be accumulated and reported in a manner that assumes the entity is separate and distinct from its owners to other business units.
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Periodicity assumption: The life of an economic entity can be divided into artificial time periods for the purpose of providing periodic reports on the economic activities of the entity.
Historical cost principle: Acquisition cost is the most objective and verifiable basis upon which to account for assets and liabilities of a business enterprise. Cost has been found to be more definite and determinable than other suggested valuation methods.
Revenue recognition principle: Revenue is recognized when the earning process is virtually complete and an exchange transaction has occurred. Generally this takes place when a sale to another individual or independent entity has been confirmed.
Matching principle: Accountants attempt to match the revenues earned during a fiscal period with the expense incurred in earning those revenues. Use of accrual accounting procedures assists the accountant in allocating revenues and expenses properly among the fiscal periods that compose the life of a business enterprise.
Full disclosure principle: In the preparation of financial statements, the accountant should include sufficient information to permit the knowledgeable reader to make an informed judgment about the financial condition of the enterprise in question.
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Materiality: In the application of basic accounting theory, an amount may be considered less important because of its size in comparison with revenues and expenses, assets and liabilities, or net income. Deciding when an amount is material in relation to other amounts is a matter of judgment and professional expertise.
Industry practices: Basic accounting theory may not apply with equal relevance to every industry which accounting must serve. The fair presentation of financial position and results of operations for a particular industry may require a departure from basic accounting theory because of the peculiar nature of an event or practice common only to that industry.
Conservatism: When in doubt, an accountant should choose a solution that will be least likely to overstate assets and income. The conservatism should be applied only when doubt exists. An intentional understatement of assets or income is not acceptable accounting. 12
When such a mechanism is able to verify that these accounting principles are followed and respected, the accounting of an organization then truly provides a faithful image of that organization’s accounting.
The decision to do what is right or wrong (ethical behavior) in accounting is not only influenced by personal motivation or external pressures. In effect, the decision of the accountant to be fraudulent or not does not stem uniquely from a drive to pursue personal goals. Several studies in this domain have proven that
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gender, (sex) and education equally shape ethical behavior in the accounting terrain. Before analyzing the relation that exists between accounting and the way gender and education affect ethical behavior, it is primarily necessary to understand how ethical behavior is affected by gender and education.
How Gender affects Ethical Behavior
As far as gender is concerned, the question that arises is that of knowing which sex is more prone to being fraudulent. Are men more liable to doing the “wrong thing” or are women the most liable. It is clear that several studies have been carried out in this light.
Numerous behavioral studies have found women to be more trust-worthy and public-spirited than men… Over the past couple of decades, a considerable body of work has emerged that has found systematic differences in behavioral characteristics across gender. The basic hypothesis proposed by this literature is that men are more individually oriented (selfish) than women. This has been demonstrated to be the case in a wide range of institutional contexts, through both experimental and survey-based studies. For example, women are more likely to exhibit \'helping\' behavior (Eagly and Crowley, 1986); vote based on social issues (Goertzel, 1983); score more highly on \'integrity tests\' (Ones and Viswesvaran, 1998); take stronger stances on ethical behavior (Glover et al, 1997; Reiss and Mitra, 1998); and behave more generously when faced with economic
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decisions (Eckel and Grossman, 1998).1 These results imply that women will be less likely to sacrifice the common good for personal (material) gain.13
The important thing here is to notice the contrasts in behavior between men and women. The above study attempts to demonstrate that women have the tendency to work in high ethical standards than men. They are not tempted to do the things that are contrary to the set rules and regulations.
Gender, ethical behavior and accounting
Ideally, women would make better accountants because of the link between their gender and ethical behavior. Accounting is a very sensitive issue in any organization and it is preferably handed over to those who can properly handle it. If women have better ethical behavior than men it would be preferable for the management of an organization to choose a woman rather than a man for the job. But the debate on whether the job should be reserved more for women than men would be inscribed in a rather subjective context since the presence of men is still strongly felt in the world of accounting. It is even proven that despite the discrepancies in ethical behavior between men and women, women still find it difficult moving up to top accounting positions as well as top managerial positions. The innate attitudes of male dominance is still very predominant in the accounting, auditing and managerial world.
The number of women in senior management positions in the UK business world has fallen sharply over the past five years, according to new research…
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PwC speculates that this trend could be down to the increasing cost of childcare, which could be persuading more women to stay at home and look after their children themselves…
Sarah Churchman, head of diversity at PwC, said: \"At the top, things are moving slowly in the right direction but our middle management data paints a very different picture.
\"Businesses tend to pay more attention to gender issues in senior positions and there appears to be an assumption that a supply from the middle ranks will eventually feed through. 14
Education and ethical behavior
Generally, an educated person would have better ethical behavior than an uneducated person. Education, formal or informal, is a way of teaching ethical behavior. No matter the individual’s character traits, a little education teaches this latter on accepted societal behavior. An untrained receptionist would obviously not have the right ethical behavior required for the job.
Despite the level of education and depending on the nature of the job, individuals still have the tendency to do the wrong thing, usually in pursuit of personal interests. It is interesting to notice how persons in important posts of office still have the tilt towards taking what does not belong to them. Equally interesting is the manner is which certain elites of society treat the less ‘illuminated’ persons of society. Still of interest is the difficulty to understand why the so called ‘illuminated’
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have the desire to override the disfavored, to trample on others in trying to achieve their selfish aims. It is because of this inborn propensity to do wrong that many societies have been crumbled. Corruption is the order of the day in many companies; embezzlement has brought down many nations. The biggest frauders and financial brigands are statesmen and educated people. A glaring example of how education almost doesn’t influence ethical behavior can be seen in the manner in which most African Leaders have handled state funds. Mobutu Sese Seseko of Zaire, Sani Abatcha of Nigeria, Paul Biya of Cameroon, are all but a drop in the ocean of corrupt leaders. International Multinationals are not left out. A glaring example is that of Paramalat.
the details that have surfaced thus far indicate that Parmalat’s fraudulent activities really “took off” when its stock went public in 1990.There were two changes that caused Parmalat’s schemes to be exposed. First, the firm changed its outside auditor. According to Italian law, this must be done every nine years, and in 1999 Parmalat changed from the up-and-coming firm Grant Thornton to DeLoitte and Touche, one of the “big four” auditing companies.Although the law is clear on the nine-year rule, it has no provision against a parent company using the same auditor for concerns that it spins off. Grant Thornton, which had been struggling for years to compete against giant multinational firms, was desperate to keep one of its most valuable and high-profile clients. Rather than
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lose Parmalat, the accounting firm suggested that Parmalat spin off its travel concern and a few other businesses, and allow these to remain under its watch.15
The Enron scandal is another good example of educated persons at high places:
On November 29, 2001, the Wall Street Journal ran an article, \"Running on Empty-Enron Faces Collapse as Credit, Stock Dive and Dynergy Bolts\" in which they reported, \"Previously, even though Enron\'s practices had worried some regulators, the Bush administration had kept its distance. Over the last decade, the company and its chairman, Mr. Lay, may have been Mr. Bush\'s biggest financial backers, donating nearly $2 million to his campaigns. Before the company\'s recent problems came to light, Mr. Lay enjoyed unusually good access to top administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who earlier this year drafted a new national energy plan that seemed to lean heavily on Mr. Lay\'s suggestions.\" 16
There have been and continue to be many company scandals perpetrated by top ranking company officials and statesmen who are supposedly educated and of high moral standing. It is in this light that there have been several debates on whether ethical education is needed in society in order to nurture better ethical behavior in society and especially in the business world.
“Can the teaching of ethics really help cleanse the business world of shady dealings?” Asked by Newsweek magazine during the height of the recent Wall-Street scandals,1 this query resonates with perennial concerns about whether or not virtue can be taught and how such instruction might best be effected…17
The fact is, ethical education if implemented, can only help in reducing unethical behavior but cannot eliminate it completely. The desire to do wrong is inherent. In any company therefore, the only way to curb unethical behavior is to set up appropriate mechanisms, such as analyzed above, that would curb such behavior.
Education, ethical behavior and accounting
To become an accountant demands a lot of training and experience. On average, the Professional Accountant receives at least three years of training backed by practical work.
Most training takes place while working with an accountancy practitioner and for instance a training programme for the Institute of Chartered Accountants can take a minimum of 3 years for a graduate up to 5 years for a school leaver in which time you will achieve a number of qualifications culminating in the advanced stage ACA qualification. 18
In effect, a professional accountant is a trained worker who works in the domain of accounting. The ABC of accounting is its definition and its principles. All accountants are aware of these principles as well as are fully aware of the
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consequences of not respecting these principles. They are aware of the dramatic results that can occur if just one principle is disobeyed. Likewise, the managers of companies, who at times play the dual role of manager and accountant, have knowledge of these principles. The fun is that despite their learnedness some actors in these fields of management and accountants as well as auditing still have the will to do the wrong thing in their pursuit for personal interest. They use all types of tricks to defy the accounting laws so as to draw a benefit. Such behavior has led to the downfall of many companies.
Proper accounting methods are more important now than ever before in light of recent corporate scandals. The names of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom are enough to bring a shudder to any auditor. The fall of these corporate giants due to unscrupulous accounting practices is one reason that many companies are placing a renewed focus on accountant training and education. 19
May be a reiteration of the accounting scandals in two of the above mentioned multinationals would throw more light on the effects of not following a proper code of conduct in accounting:
The fraud that was uncovered in 2001 at this blue chip Energy leader was so egregious that it led to the largest bankruptcy in history, hundreds of
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employee lay-offs, the dissolution of accounting firm Arthur Andersen, and 16 criminal convictions.
Evidence showed that through irregular accounting practices, Enron deliberately hid its debts and losses and falsely reported profit to banks, auditors and shareholders.
As the scandal was revealed the company’s stock plunged from $90 to just pennies, causing many Enron employees to lose their entire life-savings and retirement funds.
An American telecommunications company, WorldCom eventually went bankrupt in 2003 after years of using fraudulent accounting methods to hide its declining financial health.
In June 2002, the company’s internal audit department uncovered $3.8 billion of accounting fraud and alerted the company’s new auditors KPMG (who had replaced accounting firm Arthur Andersen).
Their findings showed that between 1999 and May 2002, WorldCom allegedly underreported expenses by capitalizing costs on balance sheets rather than expensing them. It also inflated revenue with false accounting entries. It was estimated that the asset inflation hovered around $11 billion.
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WorldCom filed bankruptcy and paid $750 million to the Securities Exchange Commission in cash and stock, which was intended to be paid to wronged investors.cf 19
In order that these malpractices be reduced to the zero level in any organization, not only are accountant supposed to have proper education and practical training and/or ethical education but irrefutable is the necessity to put in place proper mechanisms that would aid in verifying fraud in the accounting of any organization.
Before drawing a conclusion, it would be necessary to denature fraud.
In a broad strokes definition, fraud is a deliberate misrepresentation which causes another person to suffer damages, usually monetary losses. Most people consider the act of lying to be fraudulent, but in a legal sense lying is only one small element of actual fraud. A salesman may lie about his name, eye color, place of birth and family, but as long as he remains truthful about the product he sells, he will not be found guilty of fraud. There must be a deliberate misrepresentation of the product\'s condition and actual monetary damages must occur.
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Many fraud cases involve complicated financial transactions conducted by \'white collar criminals\', business professionals with specialized knowledge and criminal intent. An unscrupulous investment broker may present clients with an opportunity to purchase shares in precious metal repositories, for example. His status as a professional investor gives him credibility, which can lead to a justified believability among potential clients.20
Fraud is clearly a vice and avoiding it is a great step towards better organizational transparency.
Accounting is the corner stone of the success of an organization. When properly handled, the success of the organization is certain. Professional Accounting is supposed to be handled by highly trained professionals who are free from all moral decadence and who possess a high level of high ethical behaviour. Both gender and education influence ethical behavior in the accounting field. But considering the natural desire of man to put personal interest first, a proper code of conduct has to be imposed on the accountant irrespective of the sex or gender and/or level of education of this latter. Gender and education truly influence ethical behavior. Such influence on ethical behavior exists in the accounting field. The task was to prove this but the chief lesson to be drawn is that irrespective of the gender or education, the accountant is supposed to be subjected to the scrutiny of a very
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stringent code of conduct. This discussion therefore attempts to move away from the rather subjective debate on the relationship between accounting and the influence of sex and education on ethical behavior. It proves rightly the existence of such a relationship but tries to reiterate the fact that the only way to achieve proper accounting is through a tight code of ethics in accounting.
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Maryland Department of Budget and Management, “Glossary Definitions” https://www.opsb.state.md.us/wbapfc/glossary.asp (accessed 23/4/2008)
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Santa Clara University, [The Jesuit University in Silicon Valey] Markulla Center for Applied Ethics, “What is Ethics?” Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer, (2007) http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/whatisethics.html (accessed 23/4/2008)
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Accounting Principles for Ethics Cases Revised: Fall 2004
Approved: Dr. E. Eikner, Department of Accounting, Texas State University-San Marcos STUDENT LEARNING ASSISTANCE CENTER (SLAC)
Texas State University-San Marcos http://www.txstate.edu/slac/business/accounting/AccPrnEC.doc(accessed 23/4/2008)
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