Accountant Ethics: Navigating Difficult Questions in the Workplace

Gusto Editors

Do you know how to navigate difficult questions in the workplace?

It is inevitable that during your time working, you will encounter some kind of conflict in the workplace. It could be between you and another co-worker, you and a client, or even inside yourself. When those moments arise, it can be difficult to look past your blind spots caused by bias and analyze the situation objectively. 

That’s why we at Gusto are proud to partner with our friends at CPA Academy to bring you the webinar, “Ethics: An Independent, Objective Look at Independence and Objectivity (and Integrity).” This informative webinar addressed how to make the right decisions when difficult questions arise, hosted by Greg Kyte, founder of Comey CPE, and special guest, Will Lopez, the head of Gusto’s accountant community.

At Comedy CPE, Greg offers professional development with a comedic twist and has been named in Accounting Today’s “100 Most Influential People in Accounting.” 

In this article, we will take a look at the importance of professional skepticism, confirmation bias examples, and the contrast effect. 

The relationship between professional skepticism and objectivity

The odds are that you have either audited accounts or will in the future during your career as a CPA. During those times, you need to make difficult decisions about the reasonable nature of a subject’s accounts. We are all human, which makes absolute objectivity practically impossible because of our inherent biases. In the moments where you need to navigate difficult situations, professional skepticism provides you with the tools you need to overcome bias.

“What I’ve decided is that professional skepticism is like a fraternal twin of objectivity. Objectivity can be passive. You can go through your professional life saying, ‘I’m objective because I’ve trained myself to be objective.’ … It’s like confidence—you are confident that you’re being objective. Professional skepticism is like objectivity, but you are actively adversarial.”

– Greg Kyte
Two business people sitting having a discussion on the laptop.

Professional skepticism gives you the ability to actively separate yourself from the situation by looking at it from a point of opposition. You can truly enjoy the person with whom you are interacting, but employing professional skepticism allows you to detach yourself from how you feel about someone. 

“Professional skepticism is where you kind of transform yourself into a jerk to increase your objectivity. It’s kind of true and kind of untrue because you have to think things like, ‘Hey client, I think you’re a great guy, but I can’t believe a word you are telling me at all.’ ”

– Greg Kyte

Detaching yourself from your feelings and entering the mental position of an adversary protects you from personal bias. Without a strategy to actively boost your objectivity, it would be virtually impossible to look past your bias blind spot.

What is confirmation bias?

Psychology demonstrates that we cannot be truly objective—that’s because we all have biases in our lives. Bias is not necessarily a bad thing because it gives us a safe point of reference for how we interact with others, but when bias interferes with situations where we need to be as objective as possible, it becomes a problem.

One of the most common forms of bias is confirmation bias. This type of bias occurs when you think something is right because you already agree with it:

“The first psychological bias I want to look at is called confirmation bias. … Confirmation bias is when you’re looking at evidence and what sticks out at you is the [proof] that confirms what you already believe.”

– Greg Kyte

Confirmation bias makes us look for evidence that already proves our beliefs instead of seeing something from a purely objective position. When not kept in check, it can keep us from even attempting to look at situations objectively. However, this bias can also be beneficial for you:

“I think our opinions, our acumen, and everything else is the result of years of selectively choosing to pay attention to information that only confirms what our limited mind already accepts as truth. But realize the position you’re in as an auditor—you have a bias toward public safety and to trust no one, but verify everything. … So you already go in with the bias to have due public care.”

– Will Lopez

Acknowledging confirmation bias and keeping it in check enables you to look at situations from a healthy perspective. When you understand and regulate your confirmation bias, you know that some evidence will align with your beliefs, but it is not the whole picture.

How does the contrast effect influence our view of the world?

The contrast effect is a form of bias that skews the way we evaluate something when comparing it to something similar. Human attraction is an easy example of the contrast effect at work. Someone may think another person is attractive until that person is standing next to another more attractive person. Consequently, the first person’s view will change because they realize their subject was not as attractive as they initially thought.

Three people in the conference room having a discussion.

This form of bias poses a danger to objectivity in accounting when applied to client interaction:

“Where [the contrast effect] is going to be a danger for [accountants’] objectivity is if we have a client who’s just a wreck—they’re hard to deal with, their books were a mess, and they were resistant to our inquiries—… then we get [another client], and they’re helpful, friendly, and did their work preparing for you. All of a sudden, you go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so much better than last time. Of course, these guys are squeaky clean,’ and that impairs your objectivity.”

– Greg Kyte

Without noticing it, the contrast effect can creep into your mind and keep you from making an objective decision. Even though it is impossible to completely remove bias, remembering that the contrast effect affects you can help you make more objective decisions when dealing with clients.

How does blind spot bias influence our decisions?

Even when you understand your biases, blind spots exist. This type of bias keeps you from acknowledging your shortcomings and prevents you from knowing how other biases influence your life. 

“The last bias that I want to talk about is one of my favorites called ‘blind spot bias.’ … Psychologists have done studies that have shown that even if you know that biases affect our objectivity, every person still says, ‘Yeah, I get confirmation bias, but I don’t do that.’ Or, ‘I get the contrast effect, but that doesn’t work on me.’ ”

– Greg Kyte

A great example of blind spot bias in action is advertising. People may think that advertising strategies don’t work for them, but in the end, they find themselves wanting what companies are selling.

“I call myself out a lot where I go, ‘Yeah, advertisements don’t affect me at all.’ But then I’ll see something and go, ‘I have to have that right now.’ [When I think that,] it’s like there’s a little voice in the back of my head that goes, ‘Remember how you think that advertisement didn’t affect you? [It did].’ I think that’s especially funny because we actually can’t even be objective about our objectivity.”

– Greg Kyte

Having a blind spot is part of being human. Even if you think things do not affect you the same way as others, chances are they probably do. In the end, the best thing to do is try to be as objective as possible.

Learn more about bias in accounting and objectivity

Even though bias keeps humans from being completely objective when analyzing circumstances, understanding that bias exists makes it possible for you to be more effective at how you assess a situation. Taking a step back, trying to look beyond your bias, and employing professional skepticism give you a chance to be as objective as possible when handling difficult situations in the workplace.

“You can give an honest opinion while at the same time being totally unaware that your opinion is distorted by your personal feelings, prejudices, interpretations—which we said objectivity was if you’re not being distorted by those things. … And I think the big kicker that I want to get into on this is [that] you are giving your honest opinion, but you might not even be aware that you’re not objective.”

– Greg Kyte

If you want to learn more about making objective decisions and understanding bias, check out the entire webinar here. Also, if you want to know more about the relationship between objectivity and integrity and the relationship between independence and objectivity, be sure to check out Part One and Part Three of this webinar article series. 

Our mission at Gusto is to create a world where accountants can work with integrity and provide honest, professional opinions. Be sure to look into our People Advisory Program to learn how you can train your team to reach its potential. We also provide a partner blog full of resources for all your advising needs. Visit our Gusto for Accountants page for more information on utilizing people-based accounting within your firm.

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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