We Due Care: Revisiting the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct
By Josh Elder, CPA, and Ara Grigorian, CPA, CCIFP
This self-study's CPE exam questions and submission instructions are located at the end of this article.
Many of us are familiar with the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct (“the Code”) in passing. It is embedded in all our actions, yet often forgotten. We easily get caught up in the “grind” and lose track of our professional obligations and how we fit into the business community. From month end close to busy season, to ever changing GAAP reporting requirements, we’re constantly learning and relearning the technical component of the profession. The expectation to provide accurate and timely information keeps us on high alert but we need to pause. A break to reflect on the Code and the principles that guide our behavior, the core foundation of the profession.
When battling the constant updates from the Financial Accounting Standards Board, legislative bodies, and other authoritative organizations impacting our day-to-day, it’s refreshing to look back to the Code as a reminder. Almost an escape to the core principles that define our action which does not waver in the stress of deadlines and outside pressures. While the document in totality can be daunting as an evening read, as a reference, it can easily be picked up and serve as a guide back to your path.
The Code covers the following six principles: 1) responsibilities, 2) public interest, 3) integrity, 4) objectivity and independence, 5) due care, and 6) scope and nature of services. There are overlapping themes between them, but each principle can stand alone as a separate guide for behavior. In this lesson, we will limit our discussion to one principle, the principle of due care. We will cover the key concepts within the principle and offer guidance in upholding the standard.
“The quest for excellence” is an underlying theme of the due care principle as stated by the AICPA (0.300.060.02). But what exactly does that mean? Webster’s Dictionary defines quest as “a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey.” Time to suit up as knights of accounting and journey to the top of the mountain! Just kidding. That’s not exactly what the AICPA is going for here but it’s not that far from the truth. Accounting professionals abiding by the due care principle treat their careers as an ongoing “adventurous journey” full of highs and lows. We’re not always booking journal entries or issuing financial statements with zero errors, especially when interpreting new accounting pronouncements. Mistakes happen and they’re a part of the journey. Take ASC 606 Revenues from Contracts with Customers as an example. Most of us jumped out of our seats and began turning over every stone to find the journal entry or disclosure that would make us compliant with the new standard. How many of us can really say we got it right the first time? Let’s admit it, mistakes were made and that’s fine, and to be expected. We’re in the business of risk and the whole concept of risk is that nothing is 100%; something will go wrong. “Excellence” is not a landing spot but a journey. This also incorporates another component of a quest, danger. The pursuit of excellence can lead you to a dark dragon cave which has limited outcomes of success. When on this professional journey you will be asked to push your limits, make sacrifices, and battle dragons like the lease standard. Courage is necessary to keep true to your own core values and the principles of the Code. These mistakes made are the foundational building blocks for improvement and understanding that excellence is not easy or an achievement but the proverbial carrot dangling from the stick.
There isn’t a winning formula that can be used in every scenario or code to crack. How many times have we heard the infamous “Same as last year. Nothing’s changed, so just do what we did last year.”? This is the antithesis to the due care principle. If the pandemic, economic strife, and ever-evolving talent needs have shown our profession is that everything can change instantly and in fact very few things stay the same. If truly nothing has changed, it is likely an opportunity to help those we serve and ensure they keep up with the outside world. Operations should be dynamic, accountants will turnover, accounting principles will change, so why wouldn’t we? SALY’s brother may also sneak out if we are unable to adapt, good ole WALY (wrong as last year).
The quest for excellence is a personal challenge, but the journey requires help along the way. Help in the form of guidance, mentors, peer groups, coaches, and finally your team members. Due Care is a personal mandate, but we work so closely with others with the same expectations, we pride ourselves on our observation skills yet fail at times to acknowledge the wear and tear on our team. As a leader, before charging into the dragon cave maybe take a moment and rally the spirits, rest the bumps and bruises, and allow for a “recharge” of the fighting spirit. This journey doesn’t get to use a literary fast-forwarding to get to the action, we must acknowledge our limitations. In fact, we are expected to seek assistance from others when we’ve reached our limitations. The unfortunate part (or fortunate depending on how you look at it) is that we all are burdened by the idea of not knowing the answer and often view assistance as a sign of weakness or failure. Our natural response seems to fall to accepting more, overpromising, and sacrificing that rest and recovery time. This endless approach to the workload leads to that dangerous condition we have all grown to learn the past five years as the talent pool has seemed to be in draught, burn out. When burning out becomes part of the “quest,” it can easily shift into a different quest altogether. Have you been down that path before? A busy season you couldn’t stop saying yes to projects, deadlines stacking up, and the “I’ll be caught up if I just work a bit more tonight.” This pressure and stress compounds and becomes a contradiction to our desire to help and why we said yes to the additional workload in the first place. This is the personal challenge we discussed above, knowing how to accept your limitations and “help” the team by recharging can be as meaningful as overpromising and under delivering or potentially more damaging, sacrificing quality to meet the obligation. Using our judgment to identify when we need help, identifying our limitations, and state of mind, are critical to maintaining due care in our day-to-day as well as our professional journey. Depending on the construction of your team and situation you should consider supplementing meaningful voices with mentors and coaches. These can be organic or strategic relationships, but don’t forget relationships are not formed overnight and rarely when they are needed. Start putting a list together of those individuals you wouldn’t question their candor, those who have inspired you, those who are constantly challenging themselves. Note there is no expectation to limit the list to excellent accountants, varied perspectives are needed in this quest.
So what does all this mean and what should we do about it? The AICPA does not give us a playbook, answer sheet, or even a map for this quest. The Code is more of a tool to calibrate your compass, but the path is up to each one of us.
Have the courage to shift the mindset, don’t forget the journey includes highs and lows, and remember that it’s not a race to CFO or Partner. Those may be goals or milestones within the journey, but the quest doesn’t end there. Most of us will remember how we felt after becoming CPAs and how we believed that we reached the top. Soon afterwards, we were reminded that it was just the beginning. We must be willing to continue to train ourselves, that it’s an ongoing unpredictable process, failure is a learning opportunity, and the quest requires help. The objective is not a destination, but the desire and drive for excellence.
Producing work efficiently and under budget does not imply excellence. Your company’s/firm’s evaluation principles may have you thinking otherwise, but there’s more to it. Evaluations are not meant to serve as a basis for action, they are simply guides within a specific system. Using such guides for action may mature into a linear approach to the profession that ultimately leads to the completion mentality, “we are here to deliver a product or outcome.” Positive feedback surrounding productivity reinforces the mindset that production is the sole objective, which develops into a habit. This habit may sacrifice of quality, or become a blinder to new opportunities and growth. The extra time needed to research the implementation of a new standard is viewed as a hinderance based on this misguided approach. As we move forward it is critical we evaluate the workforce based on measures other than production and efficiency, such as; do you incorporate the Code into their everyday behavior? Do you celebrate and learn from mistakes? Our mistakes are the building blocks of our successes.
This lesson was designed to drive action in your professional journey, if there is a quick list to take with you, keep the following top of mind:
- The quest is difficult. Mistakes are welcomed, be humble.
- The quest requires support. Grow your circle of mentors and advisors, flesh out your relationships internal and external to your day-to-day peers. Remember that you’re not alone on your journey, there are plenty of us that are willing to help.
- The quest is why we do what we do. Don’t lose yourself in the grind of completion, we need to hold ourselves and those in the profession to a standard of due care for those we serve. Taking time to refresh is part of the journey and you can never get too complacent in your process where you’re not willing to try new things, refresh your commitment to the Code.
- The quest requires patience. There are no shortcuts in the journey.
- Adaptation is part of the journey, embrace the forks in the path with diligence and lean on our team. A commitment to due care doesn’t mean repeating past successes but learning and growing as conditions change. For instance, as we look at the talent pool with an eager answer for vacancies on our team, reimagine the needs of your team and who fits the role.
Josh Elder, CPA, has more than 10 years of experience providing assurances to both external clients and internally as part of an internal audit function. While in public accounting in a small firm, Josh worked on non-profit and privately held business in the manufacturing, retail, and fabrication fields, municipal and tribal governments, as well as employee benefit plans. He is a 2007 graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University and a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Oklahoma Society of Certified Public Accountants. Josh was named a 2017 OSCPA Trailblazer and was selected to attend the AICPA Leadership Academy in 2018.
Ara Grigorian, CPA, CCIFP, has 10 years of experience working in industry and public accounting. Ara has worked primarily for small CPA firms in Oklahoma City. He currently provides accounting and assurance services for the construction industry. When time permits, Ara enjoys publishing accounting lessons related to the construction industry. He is a member of the Oklahoma Society of Certified Public Accountants and serves on the Careers Committee. He is also a member of the Construction Financial Management Association.
Please complete and mail a copy of this exam along with your payment information to: Oklahoma Society of CPAs / CPAFOCUS Self-Study / 5201 N. Shartel Ave. / Oklahoma City, OK 73118-6026 by December 31. Note: The magazine self-study is $25 for members and $40 for nonmembers