I try to raise the sense of my students in Risk Management for trends, patterns and common themes – early awareness being an opportunity for effective strategy.
So when the muddied state of auditor-clients relations was twice and separately further obscured in recent days, attention should be paid.
First, a reader sent me a lament overheard at a Thanksgiving table -- a second-year audit staffer at a Big Four firm, who had been trying without success to persuade his 38-year-old supervisor that there was a defect in the results of their engagement performance. The futility of his efforts was leaving him with the dispirited feeling, as he put it, that he had become in effect an employee of the client.
The second, at the AICPA’s Washington conference on SEC and PCAOB developments, was SEC Chief Accountant James Kroeker (here) – advocating “a change to our collective vocabulary…. (D)on’t use the word ‘client’ to refer to the management of companies under audit…. (I)t is time to give serious consideration to changing the perceived ‘client’ in audit relationships.”
The uneasy dilemma of the beleaguered young staffer is no surprise, because among the many pernicious effects of Sarbanes-Oxley has been a three-fold degrading of the auditor/client relationship. From an advisory role to one of adversity and compliance – and so forms-and-process based that young professionals lack the environment in which to learn and absorb actual client business -- under on-going stress on revenues and profitability, the firms’ clear imperative to their staff is to complete the work needed to issue another commodity report, “on time, within budget, and without making waves.”
The dynamic for an eager but career-sensitive young professional is no better put than by my senior-level friend: “When you raise a problem, then by definition you become the problem.” No wonder, then, when “client satisfaction” – the long-popular mantra across the spectrum of commercial activity – readily elides to “client capture.”
While back in Washington, the vagueness of Kroeker’s musings became truly misleading as picked up and re-broadcast under the 140-bit limits of the profession’s twittering critics – mutated to the direct question “who is the client?” as if the auditor’s “primary responsibility was to investors, not the companies they audit.”
Kroeker and his agency are of course entitled to advocate for a nationalized audit function carried out by civil servants. If so, let them say so with candor, and let the debate be engaged – it will be revealed quickly enough how the community of financial information users would compare the value of today’s archaic and obsolete report with an equivalent document delivered by federal agencies distinguished by their inaction during the tumultuous events of the last three years.
Until then, it requires recalling that it has been a basic premise since the 1930’s passage of the American securities laws, when the profession lobbied successfully for private control of the assurance franchise, that the company under audit does the hiring and pays the bills.
Indeed, the disregarded consequences of that plain election in favor of an unambiguous definition of “client” are amply shown in the vast amount of time and energy wasted in the intellectually ineffective attempt to define with precision what constitutes an “appearance of independence,” in light of the contractual and economic linkage of direct auditor engagement.
It is also readily recognized that important rights and obligations arise outside the strict confines of a provider-client relationship. Concepts based in agency, trust and fiduciary duty are familiar – as is legislative authority to create duties based on extra-contractual reliance and expectations, whether for investors, consumers or even innocent by-standers.
But it does no favors to the complex challenges to evolve a valuable and sustainable audit function, to blur the lines of accountability with careless invocation of an ill-defined shift in client identity.
Or as I also try to instill in my MBA students, the guidance is still relevant as laid down by 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, that “sloppy language is a mark of sloppy thinking.”
As the poor staff auditor is learning under career-threatening pressure, the issues facing the role of auditors are already sufficiently profound. From the senior regulators in Washington, they deserve clearer articulation than they now receive.
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