Date posted: 15/09/2017 7 min read

How to handle a complaint

Chartered accountants do get sanctioned and fined - don’t let this happen to you.

In Brief

  • Don’t become belligerent if a complaint is made about you – calm cooperation is best.
  • Sometimes an apology can defuse the complaint.
  • Most complaints are not upheld but those that are relate to CA behavior, not incompetence or criminality.

Being the subject of a complaint and investigation by Chartered Accountants ANZ is very stressful.

But there are things you can do – and things you should not do – that can make the process easier, says Rebecca Stickney, leader of the Professional Conduct team in New Zealand.

The key thing is to try to treat it as a normal, if regrettable, part of doing business and approach it professionally, she says.

Due to the stressful nature of being subject to a complaint, CA ANZ advises members to seek support at the first opportunity. Accept that the complaint has been received and note the timeframe for a response. Seek clarification from the Chartered Accountants ANZ case manager where necessary.

I’ve had someone threaten to shoot me
Rebecca Stickney Leader of the New Zealand Professional Conduct team

“We are always happy to explain the process and help members make the connections they need to get support,” says Stickney. “Being complained about is stressful and often people need support at that time. We understand people having an emotional reaction.”

As the frontline in the complaints process, the conduct team receives many anxious phone calls and they are sometimes the target of angry emotional outbursts. “I’ve had someone threaten to shoot me,” says Stickney.

“I went into schoolmarm mode: ‘Do not talk to me like that. I want you to pull yourself together’. “You just have to let it go.”

What not to do 

One mistake CAs make is to ignore correspondence, but it is mandatory to respond to the Chartered Accountants ANZ disciplinary teams. Not responding can make it much worse.

Stickney has seen cases that did not need to go to the Disciplinary Tribunal end up there because the member failed to respond correctly – with findings and cost awards made against them that could have been avoided.

“In one case, the person was very shy and non-confrontational. That led to them not responding. In that particular case, the underlying complaint did not result in a sanction but the CA was disciplined for the lack of response.

“That is a sad situation for someone to find themselves in, someone who otherwise would not have had to go through it.”

Related: Finding yourself in family and business 

Chartered accountants can inadvertently find themselves embroiled in squabbles or even disciplinary action when they work closely with family members or family businesses.

When responding to a complaint, it is best to try and be dispassionate and professional, she says. This can save you time and emotional energy by helping you concentrate on what’s really important.

Think carefully about what you need to respond to, decide what you do not need to argue with  and which things you wish to dispute robustly. 

“If there are aspects to the complaint that you could have handled better, acknowledge that because one of the things the professional conduct committees will be looking for is personal insight into the conduct.”

The process will go more smoothly if you can avoid becoming belligerent. “We do see chartered accountants who have a strong reaction to being complained about – where perhaps, it was their belligerent behaviour that led to the complaint,” says Stickney.

One member involved in a business dispute wrote a letter containing considerable profanity and signed it as a CA. The complaint was upheld. The member had to apologise, accept a reprimand and pay a thousand dollar fine.

“Often a complainant just wants a bit of recognition or an apology, especially if it is a timeliness issue. They just want to talk about it and we may avoid getting a complaint at all if the member engaged earlier with their client’s concerns.”

Most common issues

Members in public practice are required to have policies and procedures for dealing with complaints and allegations under PS-1 Quality Control (New Zealand standard) or CR-3 Public Practice Regulations (Australian standard).  

In many cases, the root cause of the complaint turns out to be behavior, rather than criminality or incompetence, she says. 

“It depends what the type of misbehaviour is. At the top end, you have dishonesty or integrity cases and there are all sorts of reasons people fall into the trap of taking money or other criminal behaviour. But that is the minority of cases.”

More common are issues with communication, timeliness or client expectations not being met, she says. “It’s not about people being good or bad – it’s about how they conduct themselves.

“It might be that the CA has just put their head in the sand. Perhaps they don’t feel they can respond to that particular client, the file goes to the bottom of the pile, or they end up telling the client what they want to hear and are not clear about timeframes.”

Maintaining objectivity 

Developing a process to deal with busy periods, or personal issues, so they do not impact on workflows can help to avoid situations that may lead to a complaint. It is also important to maintain an appropriate professional distance with clients.

“Sometimes we get complaints that are about a lack of objectivity, to the point where members cross the boundary between the professional and the personal. Often it’s an emotional thing for the member, championing a client to a degree that shows a lack of perspective and professional judgement.

This can occur when they are working with a longstanding client where a couple is divorcing, or perhaps a business is in distress.

A high number of cases that come before Professional Conduct Committees are not upheld. The disciplinary bodies will consider the seriousness of the conduct and whether it warrants disciplinary sanction.  

“A mistake will not necessarily amount to a breach of the Code of Ethics. You can get things wrong, but there are degrees of this. If you find yourself the subject of a complaint, take a deep breath and do what you need to do to minimise the risk to you and your business.” 

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