The Ethics of Auditors: A Survey Study

Posted by Berend van der Kolk - Jun 16, 2021

Do work experience and gender impact ethical decisions of auditors? In a recent publication in Managerial Auditing Journal, we study this question. In this blog, we present some of the paper's main ideas, findings and conclusions.

Financial scandals such as the Wirecard fraud continue to put ethical decisions of auditors in the public spotlight, while organizations such as the International Federation of Accountants stress the importance of ethical conduct and integrity. In this research project, we are interested in factors that impact auditors’ ethical decisions, and we make use of a novel theory to hypothesize relations between experience, gender and moral awareness.

Unconscious moral decisions
We rely on a neurocognitive approach to decision making (Reynolds, 2006). This approach has as an advantage over other approaches that it does not assume that all decisions we make are per se rational or conscious, but that some decisions can be made "on the automatic pilot", i.e. unconscious. This approach argues that a person can make unconscious decisions (such as recognizing that a certain issue is ethically disputable) because it resembles an ethical prototype that this person developed before, when (s)he was confronted with a similar situation.

Reynolds’ (2006) neurocognitive approach argues that experience can help to build and refine ethical prototypes, which in turn play a critical role in unconscious ethical decision making. Following this reasoning, more (refined) ethical prototypes lead to higher levels of moral awareness. To our knowledge, ours is the first study that considers a neurocognitive approach to inform hypotheses about the antecedents of auditors’ moral awareness. In addition, we hypothesize that female auditors have higher levels of moral awareness than males.

We draw on a survey that presented short vignettes of disputable situations to auditors, which they had to score from 1 (never acceptable) to 7 (always acceptable). The survey was sent to a sample of auditors from a Big-4 firm in the Netherlands, which yielded 191 useful responses. Based on these responses, we calculated for each respondent what we coined a moral awareness index (MAI), bringing together their responses regarding various vignettes. Using multivariate regressions and mean comparisons, we tested our hypotheses.

Findings and conclusions
The findings related to our three hypotheses can be summarized as follows. First, experienced auditors demonstrated higher levels of moral awareness than more junior auditors. Second, this relation between experience and moral awareness is stronger when auditors were confronted with accounting-related vignettes, compared to other, non-accounting-related vignettes. Third, female auditors demonstrated higher levels of moral awareness than their male counterparts.

Our findings show that demographic factors may impact ethical decisions, and suggest that it may benefit ethical decisionmaking if at least some senior and/or female auditors are involved in ethical decisionmaking processes. Also, we demonstrate how the neurocognitive approach may help to think about ethical decisions made by auditors that are made either consciously or unconsciously.

If you have any questions about this blog or this paper, feel free to contact us.
Nieves Carrera, IE Business School, IE University, Madrid (
Berend van der Kolk, IE Business School, IE University, Madrid (

This blog is based on this paper:
Carrera, N. and Van der Kolk, B. (2021). Auditor Ethics: Do Experience and Gender Influence Auditors' Moral Awareness? Managerial Auditing Journal, forthcoming.

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