July 1, 2021

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Deadlines, it seems, are a significant part of life. When I had a paper route, the Grand Island Independent needed to be delivered by 5:30pm every weekday (it was still an afternoon paper back in the early ‘90s). If they weren’t, then… a few people complained. Looking back, it obviously wasn’t the most severe of consequences, but as a kid, avoiding irritated adults is a major part of life. So the idea of a deadline stuck with me. I never handed in homework late, in high school or college, or grad school. But oddly enough, I was regularly late to class. Go figure.

Anyway, this awareness of deadlines carried over into my first career as an accountant. There were audit deadlines, there were tax filing deadlines, there were payment deadlines. They loomed large for me and all my colleagues. You people know what I’m talking about. 

When I turned to blogging, I had a daily quota of 10 articles, and: I. Never. Missed. It. Not once in 15 months under my first publisher. My subsequent publishers were less concerned about the number of articles per day, so deadlines were self-imposed. And while I relaxed a little, I still used the day and the time as milestones for productivity, and it was effective. To this day, I don’t have trouble meeting deadlines. I’m aware of them, I prepare to meet them, and I rarely, if ever, miss them. I don’t need the menace of a deadline hanging over me for motivation. Not sweating deadlines is motivation enough.

Now, while this makes me an exceptional human being, I also realize that not everyone has this free and easy relationship with deadlines. For many, the deadline is the point. The imposing dread of missing it—or the thrill of hitting it—gets some people to spring into action, bear down, and GSD. This approach works, too! This may be your preferred method. (Or your clients’; if so, it’s yours by default.) Without it, many people won’t know when the work needs to be done because they don’t know when it needs to be done by. Essentially, many accountants’ whole professional lives are just a bunch of revolving workback plans.

So if you live and die by, love and hate deadlines, then you’ll find a kinship with the sublime Rachel Syme:  

My relationship to deadlines, like that of almost everyone I know, is full of contradictions. I crave them and avoid them, depend on them and resent them. Due dates form the rhythm of my life as a journalist, and there is some comfort in these external expectations. But a deadline is also a train barrelling down the track, and you’re the one strapped to the rails. The time-sensitive obligations that add both structure and suspense to our lives—tax returns, loan payments, license renewals, job applications, event planning, teeth cleanings, biological clocks—can inspire nauseating dread as much as plucky action.

As the last day to complete a task approaches, we all respond to the pressure differently. Some (well-adjusted, diligent) people jump in, figuring that the anxiety of an unpaid bill or an unfinished project is far more painful than the difficulty of sticking to a sensible schedule. But others, like me, live in blissful denial—at least until the last minute, when, fuelled by adrenaline, caffeine, and self-loathing, we bolt to the end, vowing that we’ll do it all differently next time (we won’t). 

The question that this all raises for me (again) is: Are accountants destined to be tethered to deadlines? Is there no escaping them? In some cases, yes, because the deadlines are set by regulatory bodies, and we’re given no choice. And even if you were to discard tax and deadline-driven assurance work for the life of outsourced CFO/controller/bookkeeper, so much of the work revolves around the calendar. Deadlines are part of the design: end of month, end of quarter, end of year. Still, those are soft deadlines compared to the hard deadlines of tax and audit. Or if you go the full-blown advisory/consulting route, your projects will have deadlines, too—although you’ll have more say in what they are than someone who simply has to abide by the IRS.

There’s another important factor here that I mentioned earlier: clients. If clients have something at stake (e.g., a tax return filed on time), they care a lot about the relevant deadline. If you’re not great with deadlines—or they’re your catalyst for getting things done—the client factor can cut both ways: It’s either an added jolt of motivation or an extra dose of fear. In either case, the consequences of missing it are far worse than dealing with an irritated adult.


Whistleblowers usually come in one of two varieties:

  1. The do-gooders. Sometimes they’re a little eccentric, sometimes a little self-righteous, but their hearts are in the right place. They’ve observed dubious behavior repeatedly, called attention to it, been ignored, and want to prevent a lot of people from getting hurt, both financially but also personally.
  2. The opportunists. They’re aware of some shady business, maybe because they’ve been involved in said shady business, have been jilted somehow, and now are interested in REVENGE. And since the best revenge is living well, that means cashing in with either an SEC or IRS whistleblower award. Plus, busting your nemesis is a nice bonus.

So this story of a forensic accountant who falls somewhere in between is a bit unusual. John McPherson blew the whistle on a $1.4 billion fraud perpetrated by Life Partners Holdings Inc., and “he initially wasn’t interested in getting rewarded […] but did it to help out the investors.” Later, however, when the possibility of a large reward arose, “Mr. McPherson was so beguiled by the lure of whistleblower millions that he essentially quit his day job to become a full-time whistleblower.”  

Basically, the SEC surrendered the money it was due so that the investors in Life Partners could recoup more. This hung McPherson out to dry after five years of work, and he eventually declared bankruptcy. It’s far from an ideal outcome, but it’s not surprising:

The regulator won’t pay awards for financial recoveries in bankruptcy proceedings, even if the affected company entered bankruptcy as a result of the agency’s enforcement actions.

Some critics say that discourages people from reporting the most egregious frauds—Ponzi schemes and companies with major accounting chicanery—which often collapse or end up in bankruptcy court.

Maybe I’m naive, but I’m more than a little skeptical of the idea that people will let “the most egregious frauds” continue simply because that could bankrupt the company, and they wouldn’t get paid for blowing the whistle. (Full disclosure: I just co-hosted an ethics webinar so recency bias may be a factor.) I guess the alternative is to know about the brazen fraud and a) allow it to run its course and be in the same financial position that you were before, or b) hope that someone else—someone a little more eccentric and self-righteous about this sort of thing—notices. 

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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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