March 24, 2022

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Accountant self-esteem

As a young person, I became very impressed with the potential of a career in accounting almost as soon as I realized that was a thing a person could do. I remember thinking that CPAs had the swagger and smarts to do anything. That their expertise, the respect that they garnered from peers and clients, and their all-around moxie made them indispensable members of the business world and their communities. I thought everyone felt this way about accountants, and if they didn’t, they should. A little while later, when Arthur Andersen partners were called to testify on Capitol Hill after Enron’s collapse, I was stunned that anyone would question the integrity and competence of the unimpeachable auditors. They were the good guys! There had to be an explanation for why they got caught up with these unscrupulous Enron actors. 

Cute, right?

I have no idea why I romanticized the accounting profession at the time, but clearly, I didn’t know any better. The golden age of accounting was long gone by then. And to the extent that whiffs of that prestige remained, they were extinguished by accounting’s association with the Enron scandal while the reputation of toxic overwork carried on. 

These days, it isn’t the taint of scandal that dogs the profession so much as a couple of stereotypes, one old and one new. The old stereotype is dullness. A study out of the University of Essex found that accounting was perceived to be one of the most boring occupations; “perceived” being the operative term

The study […] found that being perceived as boring leads people to perceive one as having low competence and low interpersonal warmth. The paper said this, in turn, could lead to people perceived as boring to be at greater risk of harm, addiction and mental health issues due to potential social ostracization.

Sure, maybe—but also, if we allowed others’ perceptions of our jobs to have a meaningfully negative impact on us, would anyone do anything? Look at lawyers. Look at politicians. There’s no amount of negative perception that will dissuade certain people from seeking office. 

Anyway. The new stereotype is that accountants will be soon rendered obsolete by technology. The assumption is that jobs involving rote work and numbers will soon be done by robots that will not tire, falter, or complain. That they will be cast into the dustbin of dead industries along with the likes of blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Folks in these jobs need to recognize this inevitability now to avoid being replaced. 

But even if these perceptions of accountants are overwrought, no one would blame you for thinking that the accounting profession is probably in dire need of a boost in self-esteem. Now obviously, I’m not talking about you or you, or even you. No, you, dynamic accounting professional who is widely adored and admired, I’m sure your self-esteem is fine. But, collectively, the accounting profession feels a bit lost. Its leaders say that it’s evolving, but it’s clear that it’s evolving into something they don’t really recognize. The worries and insecurities persist. After two hellish tax seasons, this one started out pretty normal, and… people were still miserable. Plus, it’s not like there’s a town forum where people get to gently correct common misconceptions about their profession:

The researchers agreed that the view of accountants, among other professionals, may not be entirely fair, and lamented that those so judged lack opportunities to prove these perceptions wrong because, as the study also found, people tend to avoid those they see as boring.

There’s an element of fatalism to accounting that I’ve never fully understood. That is, there are certain immutable facts of accounting life. There are deadlines. April 15 is a thing. We work long hours. Auditing (or tax) is a thing we must do. Busy season is always terrible. Obviously, some firms try to do things differently, but they are the exceptions.

These are simply accepted as the destiny for everyone who chooses the field. It suggests something about the profession that I don’t think many people want to admit, which is that most don’t have the self-esteem to break away from it. Trying things fundamentally different from the way they’ve always been done would be too difficult, too risky; and oftentimes people just feel too busy. The stories that the accounting profession has been telling itself for decades have eroded the ambition and, in some cases, the desire to change.   

Man, if only the accountants of my long-ago dreams would show up and do something about this.

People are worried about auditor independence

Here we go with this again:

Regulators are carrying out a sweeping investigation of conflicts of interest at the nation’s largest accounting firms, asking whether consulting and other nonaudit services they sell undermine their ability to conduct independent reviews of public companies’ financials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Yes, yes. Audit firms that perform non-audit services for their clients clearly have a conflict of interest, and that concerns many people. It’s just a little weird that that’s what people worry about; meanwhile, the public-company-pays-the-auditor-for-the-audit issue doesn’t seem to concern many people at all. 

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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