Ethics can be defined as a framework of values established by a society or particular group.  Ethics serve as a standard that a ruling body can use to compare against to determine if a person is acting properly or not.  Exhibiting strong ethics sets the accounting profession apart from other professions.  It is a key tenet of what makes an accountant trustworthy to those outside of the profession. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is the rule-making and standard-setting body of the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) profession.  The AICPA’s Code of Professional Conduct details the ethical standards that must be followed to use the title of CPA.  This code is utilized by many states as the backbone of the ethics Continuing Professional Education (CPE) rules for their licensees.  

Ethics Requirements

Each individual state’s board of accountancy sets an ethics hours minimum as part of their required CPE programs.  In addition to the ethics CPE requirements of the individual boards of accountancy, ethical regulations are set and followed by many federal, state, and local governing bodies including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Department of Labor (DOL).  

The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct (the Code)

The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct (the Code) is the basis for most ethics CPE courses.  Taking an ethics course focused on the Code of Professional Conduct will ensure that all of the basic principles of ethical conduct are being discussed.  There are six principles of professional conduct as set by the Code are:

  • Responsibilities: members should exercise moral and professional judgment during the course of their work and career.  Members have an obligation to anyone they are providing professional services to, as well as an obligation to uphold the standards of the profession.
  • The Public Interest: Members should act in ways that will service the public interest and maintain public trust.
  • Integrity: Members must be honest and candid while maintaining client confidentiality.
  • Objectivity and Independence: Members should tackle each of their professional responsibilities free of conflicts.
  • Due Care: Members should be constantly trying to improve their ethical competence and act to the best of their ability when it comes to ethical standards.
  • Scope and Nature of Services: Members should evaluate whether the services being provided can be carried out while still following professional standards.


Specific Ethics CPE topics

While a CPE course covering the Code will ensure that all of the basic tenets of ethical professional conduct are covered, there are also CPE courses available that delve into specific ethical topics for more detailed information and guidance.  Specific CPE topics of interest include:

  • Understanding conflicts of interest
  • Corporate ethical culture
  • History of ethics
  • Understanding independence rules
  • Applying ethics to real-world examples
  • Understanding the fraud triangle  
  • Applying ethics within a specific industry or organization type

Understanding the Ethical Responsibilities is Required

Having a detailed understanding of the ethical responsibilities required is not negotiable for a licensed CPA.  Meeting the ethics CPE requirements as set by state boards and the AICPA is a must for all CPAs to ensure they maintain the expected professional standards of the accounting profession.