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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.

14th Jun 2020
Partner An unnamed firm
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Montreal, Canada - July 13, 2016: hundreds of protesters gathered at Nelson Mandela Park for a Black Lives Matter rally.
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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.

Replies (7)

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By Truthsayer
18th Jun 2020 18:11

'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?'

It is ironic that a virtue signalling article such as this, which purports to be dealing with a problem of bullying and discriminatory behaviour, is saying that a junior employee should be dealt with more harshly than a senior one, as it is easier to sack the junior!

It is not our job to police whether our clients are being rude or not. There are much worse things clients can do than say something 'offensive' to the ears of a guardianista without there being reason to disengage. I had a client who committed a murder and was gaoled for life, but I didn't disengage even for that!

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By hiu612
19th Jun 2020 09:46

Well said Imprudent Accountant. If you're not challenging this behaviour, you're condoning it. And whether you like it or not that makes you part of the problem.

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By johnjenkins
19th Jun 2020 10:42

Human Nature takes many forms. Why do some people indiscriminately kill other people for not believing in what they believe in? Why do some people allow themselves to be killed for whatever reason? We are basically animals that are trying to be civilised. It's not rocket science that there are going to be prejudices. How to deal with the different types of prejudice is very difficult. The main problem is that it is worldwide. The good thing is that there are clusters of non prejudice. These clusters need to be developed further. However I can't see this happening for a few hundred years. I think the world has come a long way in the last 2000 years and that should be applauded.

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By lja76
19th Jun 2020 23:10

Come on.............sreiously?

What are the chances of a Woman of Afro Carribean heritage running a business?

Only kidding!

I am sure many of us would feel extremely uncomfortable if we heard offensive views, either from a client or peer. I also wish that I had more courage in such situations to voice my abhorance of such views, however, experience tells me that I would likely feel mortified and disappointed by my own impotence.

My self-loathing in these circumstances is somewhat offset by the knowledge that my children are far more coutageous. They would challenge this behaviour without hesitation.

I think that the current climate of outrage is completely justified. I am concerned that the cause is not advanced by governments, corporations and the justiciary reacting to angry raw emotions with token knee-jerk concessions.

The author's mental gymnastics above are an example of this type of hyperbole. Ignoring a client's racial slur does not equal "Condoning Racism"; nor is the accountant in the above example bringing the profession into dis-repute.

Hearing a racial slur is different to "condoning racism". This basic logic is lost in the current climate. We are unable to listen to or try to understand other (often disagreeable) viewpoints. This restricts any opportunity to inform or alter these attitudes.

Whilst I do not necessarily disagree with the decisions. I am worried that rush to condemn or castigate perceived trandgressors without due process harms us all.

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Replying to lja76:
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By johnjenkins
22nd Jun 2020 09:29

Morgan freeman said that the best way to deal with racism is not to talk about it. I tend to agree as I strongly feel that circa 85% of people are not racist or sexist.

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By Pam Moreland
22nd Jun 2020 16:26

I can remember a client telling me what I considered to be an offensive racial joke over 30 years ago. My response then was the same as it would be now. Raised eyebrows and a quiet comment that the joke was offensive, certainly not funny and not appropriate. Would you put up with a client swearing at you? I certainly would not.

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Replying to Pam Moreland:
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By johnjenkins
23rd Jun 2020 10:58

Comedy has come under attack over the last few years. If you have seen some of the "whats app" jokes that are being passed about you would probably have more than "raised eyebrows". Comedy and jokes take the mickey out of every conceivable thing and that is a good thing. The reason is that comedy knows no boundaries so it can't be racist, sexist or any other ist.

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