Why should we accept sexism and racism?
The Imprudent Accountant responds to a reader's query regarding a client with racist attitudes which has thrown into focus the need for accountants to follow ethical guidelines when it comes to professional behaviour.
Recently, Degan89 reported on an encounter with a client who casually uttered “a racial slur” during a conversation.
The question about how to deal with such issues elicited a series of responses from other accountants. For the most part, the early view was that the client is always right so he or she should turn a blind eye. A slightly more nuanced version was to give some indication of a negative opinion before turning a blind eye.
A series of more robust responses followed, including one accountant whose policy is to disengage any client who propagates racist or sexist views. Nobody to date has referred to ethical guidelines, which surprises me.
Accountants have a reputation for living in the past and, on this issue, you have to ask whether many in the profession are a long way behind the curve.
The issue of ethics
Maybe nobody in the industry has noticed but a movement called #MeToo has been making waves for some time, more noticeably in the United States than on the side of the Atlantic. Anyone who has followed the news will have seen that, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis from being asphyxiated by a police officer (all of which was filmed), the political climate in America has become incendiary.
The anger has spilled over from the states on to the streets of London, Birmingham and other British cities, most notably in the #BlackLivesMatter protests, which have been gaining momentum around the world.
Accounting profession responsibilities
It could be time for the profession to reconsider its laissez-faire attitude, despite the difference in standards depending on the circumstances.
If you run a practice and one of your partners begins using sexist and racist language in front of a female client of Afro-Caribbean origin, how would you react? If a fellow member of staff did the same, would the response be different?
At the very least, there should be a reprimand and, if the member of staff is junior enough, marching orders and, if so, why should you put up with equally unacceptable behaviour from a client?
Fear of the client
Sadly, the answer is that clients pay the bills and we are fearful of offending them, which is why so many larger firms face constant accusations of audit failure in situations where they can be accused of kowtowing to interested parties rather than doing their jobs properly.
Instead, we should consider whether we would be happy to hold our head up if the conversation had been overheard by a BAME client or colleague, who then challenged our response – or lack of.
Advice to Degan89
To answer for Degan89, if I was feeling charitable, I would advise the client that I find their behaviour offensive and request they desist. It is up to you to decide how politely or aggressively you wish to make the point.
If that fails, the client should be told they are obliged to comply with your professional body’s ethical guidelines. I believe all international accounting bodies are similar, but the following quotes come from the ICAEW:
“Professional Behaviour – to comply with relevant laws and regulations and avoid any conduct that the professional accountant knows or should know might discredit the profession.” […] “Conduct that might discredit the profession includes conduct that a reasonable and informed third party would be likely to conclude adversely affects the good reputation of the profession.”
Condoning racism is not conducive to the good reputation of the profession. Therefore, if a quiet word doesn’t do the trick, I don't see an alternative than to inform the client you no longer wish to act.
Having done the right thing, it would be nice to feel you had cleared out a bad client and begun to build a reputation as an accountant thriving businesses in the 21st century would want to commission.
In reality, it is a sad fact that many of our peers will probably keep turning that blind eye.