- Sometimes health issues can interfere with members being able to cope with professional expectations
- Members in sole practices need to be particularly careful because they can be loath to seek help
- Members should ensure they are not left out on their own when the going gets tough
By Alexandra Johnson.
Rebecca Stickney, Professional Conduct and Complaints (PCC) lead in New Zealand, says the impact of ageing, ill-health and stress are common factors in many of the complaints she deals with. She says these cases are seldom about a member’s lack of integrity or honesty, but about failing to keep up.
“Sometimes there are mental health issues or serious physical health problems that interfere with members being able to cope with professional expectations and issues get raised with the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC),” she says.
“These members just can’t seem to get to those jobs that are harder than normal. They put their head in the sand and those jobs keep going to the bottom of the pile.”
Sometimes when one complaint is made it suggests a more systemic problem throughout the practice and with other clients.
Complaints about public practitioners are more prevalent, but Stickney also sees issues arise with members working in the corporate sector or employees of public practices.
“Some of those complaints originate from an employer; the member is not coping well, which can manifest in unethical behaviour.”
While the PCC does not deal with employment issues per se, at times such behaviour has crossed the line into unprofessional conduct and impaired fitness to practise.
Sometimes when one complaint is made it suggests a more systemic problem throughout the practice.
Kate Dixon, manager of Professional Conduct and Complaints in Australia, says members in sole practice need to be particularly careful.
“It’s a risk for all sole practitioners, they are protective of their client base and can be loath to seek help,” she says.
She has seen sole practitioners make inadequate arrangements with external people to take over urgent work, but vital responsibilities have been overlooked and landed the member in trouble.
Stickney says a common complaint is that the member has failed to communicate delays or inability to complete work due to ill health or a stressful life event. Members tell the client what they want to hear and not the full story, which compounds the problem. But clients, she says, are often very understanding if they know what is going on.
Dixon says they get a huge number of complaints around members failing to respond. “Clients are trying to get a response out of them, as are we. And they can end up with a disciplinary outcome against them because of whatever is happening in their life which impacts on them professionally.”
Both Stickney and Dixon say age can be a factor, as members may need to consider if they are able to keep practising or if it is time to retire or get support.
“Accounting is changing and it is a demanding profession. We get complaints about members who have not kept up with relevant standards, legislative changes, compliance and technology” says Stickney.
Dixon says such a scenario can bring an unfortunate end to an otherwise long and successful career in the accounting industry.
“A sole public practitioner can for example lose his or her good reputation due to not complying. Often they know it is time to make changes but can’t bring themselves to do so.”
Stickney says isolation of members can also cause problems.
“We have seen members who are isolated, perhaps they have no extended family to guide them through retirement. And they could be having health problems and not coping. But unfortunately, they do not recognise that these issues are affecting their professional responsibilities”.
These cases are particularly difficult as a compassionate response is needed but there is also a disciplinary process required due to negligence or incompetence.
Members should think about good succession planning for their business.
While isolation can be a particular factor for members in rural areas because of the lack of potential successors around to step in, it can also come into play in suburban firms. In the corporate sector however, it is more likely an elderly member can taper down the workload or will pick up suggestions from colleagues about appropriate adjustments to workload.
Stickney says members should think about good succession planning for their business and putting in place power of attorney arrangements. In New Zealand, that’s something that the Chartered Accountants ANZ regulation team will assist members with.
“They also need to think about succession planning when they are appointed under wills or trusts. This is a particular issue if you’ve got an elderly client who has appointed a member when the will was drafted in the 1970s or 1980s. The client ages, as does the member, and by the time that estate comes into effect perhaps that member is not the right person to be the executor.”
Members should ensure they are not left out on their own when the going gets tough or life events interfere with their ability to do their job. Stickney says they ought to network with other accountants, join special interest groups through Chartered Accountants ANZ and other groups that enable them to meet people who could potentially succeed them. And most importantly, ask for support if they are struggling.
In cases where there are serious mental health issues, some disciplinary outcomes include the requirement for ongoing psychiatric assessments which are reported to the PCC so they can monitor the member’s fitness to practise.
Isolation can be a particular factor for members in rural areas because of the lack of potential successors around to step in.
“Members can also be required to have mentoring to ensure that they are maintaining their professional responsibilities,” says Stickney.
“It is hard for people who are dealing with mental health issues, they might have all sorts of ebbs and flows in their stability but they can have productive careers and be supported through that.”
In the greater scheme of things, says Stickney, these members can find such mentoring a positive experience.
“They are mindful of the need to maintain their mental and medical wellbeing and the impact that can have professionally.”
Dixon says it is important that members, particularly those in sole practice, put in place arrangements for both temporary and permanent incapacity with a “caretaker” practitioner agreement. This agreement should include factors such as professional indemnity insurance arrangements, revenue sharing, and how to evaluate whether the practitioner is able to return to operate the business and service the clients.
And, she advises, don’t wait.
“Most people say when you are in your 40s and 50s you’ve got years to go, but you don’t know what will eventuate. People need to think about this earlier – even temporary strategies. Clients can’t wait for you to get better,” Dixon says.
“You need to identify the triggers that might precede these caretakers needing to step in. What happens with the clients? What happens with fees, rights and responsibilities? This needs to be thought through in advance because when you are trying to put in place arrangements in a hurry you don’t have time to think things through.”
Dixon says the Professional Standards team can assist members with identifying potential triggers for scenarios such as these, to enable members to compile an appropriate risk strategy.
And as people are working a lot longer than they have before, there is an even greater need for members to have such strategies in place.
Members often find the complaints process stressful and emotional.
Stress, depression, ill-health or death of a spouse or divorce can also bring about the need for a temporary risk management strategy. In certain circumstances, what is personal can become professional.
Dixon says members often find the complaints process stressful and emotional and advises they seek support and advice from both CA ANZ and their own networks.
“We get a lot of feedback from the members that they find it difficult and stressful and that impacts their personal and professional life. We encourage our members to seek support to help them deal with and respond to the process.”
In addition to the services offered by CA ANZ members can also talk to a lawyer, a colleague or a mentor.
“The members who get support often cope a lot better.”
Help is available
While an intrinsic component of being a chartered accountant is adhering to professional and ethical standards, approximately 400 members per year are brought to the attention of the Professional Conducts Committee (PCC). The PCC is responsible for investigating complaints, and if a complaint is established, sanctions, fines, suspension or a member being struck off are possible outcomes.
Many complaints involve members who are dealing with physical or mental health issues which affect professional obligations. But with forethought and a variety of strategies, these stressful and costly situations can be avoided.
CA ANZ offers professional support to help members avoid issues that may result in a complaint being made against them. In Australia, the CA Advisory Group, a group of senior members of the profession, is available to discuss any issue a member might want advice or support on.
The organisation’s Professional Support team can offer advice around creating an effective risk strategy in case of incapacity and there is also support available to members before, during and after a professional conduct process. Queries can also be raised with the Professional Conduct teams.
For professional advice and support, members can contact the CA ANZ team by phoning 0800 469 422 (New Zealand) and 1300 137 322 (Australia).
To read the first-hand account of how a CA ANZ member manages his mental health while running his own consultancy business, read Arthur Kirk FCA's story now.
Alexandra Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Wellington.
This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue of Acuity magazine.