Reviving the Profession: The glass is half full
By Philip Wolitzer, CPA, Long Island University
In the August 2002 CPA Journal, Bob Colson stated that “we need to do many things if we’re intent on reviving our profession.” One of the first, in my opinion, is to emphasize personal integrity, a firm adherence to a code of moral values. It is not enough to just be honest, we must be incorruptible. Some of our colleagues seem to have forgotten this. If we are to remain a profession in the public’s eyes—something more than merely a trade or a business—we must keep our integrity beyond reproach.
I do not accept the conclusion of Albrecht and Sack that “few CPAs would choose a career in accounting again. Even fewer would choose an accounting undergraduate education again.” If I could start again, I’d still be an accountant. Also, I find that my students are proud to have chosen accounting as a career and are determined to change the profession for the better.
I have counseled many young people who didn’t really know what major to choose in college. I never wavered in suggesting accounting as a major, even though they may not choose it as their life’s work. The knowledge acquired while studying accounting prepares the student for any possibility in business.
A good curriculum teaches you how to analyze and how to think. It becomes a foundation for lifetime learning. Half of the education is in the liberal arts and half is in business. Whether inside the classroom or out, students are taught communication skills and build interpersonal relationships. A multiplicity of student clubs teach leadership skills, and foreign students force the other students to think globally. Internships incorporate practical experience. As usual, most students absorb, but some think that as long as they graduate, they have achieved. That is regrettable, but such is life.
As professional education has evolved, we found that voluntary education did not work. Mandatory continuous professional education has become the norm. As usual, the success of CPE is somewhat blunted when supervision is lax. Thus, whatever is suggested in the many plans to revive our profession, they must be mandatory and supervised. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 sets up a Public Company Accounting Oversight Board that, if handled well, will be an important step. An independent and strong audit committee of the board of directors will also be an important step. Requiring the CEO and CFO of all publicly traded companies to certify the accuracy and completeness of their statements should keep them honest.
Compulsory peer reviews are necessary for every CPA firm, not just for those performing accounting and auditing services. The decision for one-year, two-year, or three-year reviews should be based on firm revenues. Firm reviews should not be allowed. Master reviewers should be certified, and they should pick up personnel as needed from firms that have qualified some of their staff. This should prevent firms from patting each other on the back. As an educational tool, this can be invaluable in strengthening the quality of the practice.
Perhaps the most important factor is higher management. The tone starts at the top. Backbone must be encouraged and rewarded. Authoritarian leadership cannot be applied to professional employees. Mentoring should be fostered and set up as a regular program, again with supervision.
Research has shown that any firm, but especially a professional firm, finds a much better bottom line when staff is happy and contented. Fostering a spirit of professionalism reminds everyone how important it is to be aware of independence, conflicts of interest, and the public interest. I remember when I started in the profession I was told that if you comport yourself as a true professional, the financial rewards will follow. It is regrettable that too many have put financial considerations first and professional responsibilities much lower than second. Professional ethics cannot just be words. Perhaps more people should read Ethics and the CPA, published by John Wiley and Sons.
We are now in a transitional phase where everyone will be held more accountable. The rules are in place. They have to be followed, supervised, and sanctions used to help those who stray. The basic concepts of GAAP—usefulness, reliability, comparability, consistency, verifiability, neutrality, objectivity, completeness, substance over form, and conservatism—do not have to be changed. They have to be utilized.
If I could start again, I’d still be a professional accountant. I have made many good friends, been rewarded financially (to a degree), and have felt great satisfaction in pursuing a career as an educator and a practicing professional. The work has been very challenging and never lacking for variety. Perhaps we should all start thinking that the glass is half full instead of half empty. Perhaps I can best sum it up by telling you that my son also earned the CPA certificate. q
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