CPA’s Ethics: Four Questions for Better Decisions

By Charles Hall | Accounting and Auditing

Jan 23

In this article, I address CPA’s ethics and the benefits of making good decisions.

Men are alike in their promises. It is only in their deeds that they differ. Molière

CPA Ethics

We’ve all been there.

Your client wants you to sign off on an issue, one that is in the land of gray–you know, that place where there is no black or white. And, of course, the issue has significant dollars attached to it, so it’s important.

Your anguish rises, so you try to see the Great Oz, but he’s hiding behind that curtain, smoke billowing, lighting crashing–but no advice. Since the wizard has no wise words of wisdom, you need someone, or at least something, to help you. Here are four questions you can ask yourself when you face ethical decisions.

CPA Ethics: Four Questions for Better Decisions

Here are four questions to ask:

  1. How would I feel if my choice was placed on the front-page of the local newspaper (or in the Journal of Accountancy)?
  2. What would my father do (or anyone else I greatly respect)?
  3. What would I advise my child to do? (If your child is three, pretend she is thirty.)
  4. What’s the worst thing that could happen? 

Can questions such as these really help? Let’s see. 

County Fires Auditor

Many years ago I was doing an audit of a local county government. I discovered the county commission chairman had arranged for a material purchase of property from his son without using the required bid process, and the transaction was illegal in our state. (I had recently started a CPA firm, so this was one of my few clients. I needed the audit fee.) When I discovered the irregularity, I met with the county commission chairman and told him I would report the transaction in the audit report. He leaned over and quietly said to me, “if you do, you’ll no longer be the auditor.” No one else was in the room.

Later I was physically threatened, and for some time I feared what might happen to me. The decision of what to do, however, had already been made. In asking myself questions such as those above, the right course of action was obvious. 

I reported the illegal transaction and was immediately fired. It cost me, but I knew it was the right thing to do. (Interestingly, when the news broke, a reporter contacted the county commission chairman and the county manager. The county manager stated that I had “my hand in the till,” and that the auditor–that’s me–had stolen money, though they never said how.)

Because of situations like this one, client acceptance has become important to me. We need clients with integrity. Yes, we do. 

When you face a decision such as this one, here are four actions that may help. 

CPA’s Ethics: Four Actions for Better Decisions

Here are four actions to take:

  1. Call the AICPA Ethics Hotline or the AICPA Technical Hotline (877-242-7212). (They are independent of the issue, so they will give you a straight-up answer.)
  2. Call a CPA with knowledge in the area of concern, and ask his or her opinion.
  3. Create a memo supporting your proposed decision, and share it with a partner, quality control department, or whoever is in charge. (I find that writing creates clarity.)
  4. Sit on it (if you can). I gain clarity as I allow the issue to percolate, and as I pray about it. I try not to make a high-stakes decision quickly. Hurried decision are usually poor ones.

Do the Right Thing

As you consider this article, remember, a clear conscience is a precious commodity. If you believe a particular course of action is going to keep you awake at night, your conscience is talking to you. Listen, even if it means less money–especially if it means less money.  

Do the right thing. You’ll be glad you did.

A CPA’s ethics are, and will always be, important.

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About the Author

Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses. He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events. Charles is the quality control partner for McNair, McLemore, Middlebrooks & Co. where he provides daily audit and accounting assistance to over 65 CPAs. In addition, he consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.

  • armando balbin says:

    I usually follow the three last actions. I follow the first one when still in a technical interpretation doubt. It depends on the specifics of the situation. I keep in mind that the profession comes first, the business side comes after, and it paid off. I have had situations that if I had allowed to be influenced in taking the wrong decision it would have cost me an expensive price.

  • Ching-Ming Liu says:

    I prefer the fourth action. The more detailed analysis and thinking process, the better result may come out. We always have to think about responsibility and conscience we may face in deep of our heart forever. I also love and enjoy that “sleeping well”.

  • Charles B. Hall says:

    Thank you for your comment Ching-Ming. We surely must live with our decisions and our conscience. I too love a good nights sleep.

  • Philip says:

    Sit on important decisions and work overnight and let your brain sift through things.

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