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Keeping the Chartered Accountant’s badge shiny

If you or your firm are the subject of a complaint, what should you do? Importantly – don’t panic. Professional Conduct’s Investigation Team takes us through what you should – and should not – do.

Process is one thing, but the human reaction to being the subject of a complaint is quite another. Reacting emotionally simply will not help – members need to engage as requested on these very stressful occasions.

Professional Conduct’s Investigation Team has a very clear remit. “We are here to protect the public, of course, but – from the member’s perspective – we are also keeping the ICAEW ‘badge’ shiny, and protecting the reputation of chartered accountancy,” says Nigel Howell, ICAEW’s Head of Investigation.

“When there is disciplinary action – which occurs in a very small number of cases considering the number of complaints we get – that action is published. The reason we publish this information is to protect the reputation of the chartered accountancy profession and to discourage people from offending.”

He reminds us that sometimes these complaints will be legitimate, and in those cases, there will be issues for members to address. “It’s how they deal with them, how they get help if they need help, and how they refrain from making the situation worse that matters at this time,” says Howell.

“It’s very easy to react emotionally to a complaint. It’s important to only respond to the specific issues flagged by the ICAEW Conduct Department and remain focused on these issues rather than letting emotions creep in. We understand that this is easier said than done, but it will help.”

He points out that, even if Professional Conduct’s Investigation Team decides the complaint lacks substance, the complainant still has a right for that complaint to be heard by the Investigation Committee – a body comprising 22 professional and lay participants. That is why members and firms should always take complaints seriously – but that does not mean that the complaint cannot be resolved.

“Just because we investigate a member, doesn’t automatically mean that there will be a disciplinary sanction,” says Carrie Langridge, Senior Manager – General, Compliance and Tax. “It may just mean that we need to hear the response from the member. If the member cooperates with us, provides us with the information that we ask for promptly, that is generally a more efficient way for the member to deal with the issue than reacting emotionally.”

Langridge is emphatic in her advice to members: “Don’t work against us. We are not here to protect members and we’re not here to assist complainants – we’re neutral. We receive the facts and then assess them. Sometimes that information does need to come from the member, so we need members to supply it promptly.”

She is very clear in her message: “Don’t panic, engage with us and don’t ignore us, but remember a significant percentage of complaints do not result in any disciplinary action.”

Howell points out that any member who is struggling with deadlines should let the team know. “We will be reasonable,” he says. “Especially given the COVID-19 situation.”

Clients, former clients, former partners or competitors – these are all typical sources of complaint. “Sole practitioners find the complaints process particularly difficult because they don’t have anyone to share this with,” says Howell. “In larger firms there will be someone else that deals with any complaints and that helps to take the emotion out of the situation.”

Howell reminds members and firms that there is plenty of support at ICAEW for members who find themselves in the complaints process. The Support Members Scheme and CABA are prime examples of how ICAEW can help.

Langridge comments that there is often a benefit to members if they do cooperate. “If the complaint does go to the Investigation Committee and the committee is considering a sanction, it will take into account member cooperation. Cooperation demonstrates a positive attitude and indicates that the member in question is less likely to repeat that wrongdoing. This all has an impact on any sanction,” she says.

And please keep in mind that most of Professional Conduct’s Investigation Team are chartered accountants themselves – they know what it is like to be a member. Howell says: “We have to apply judgement – that is why we need qualified staff in our team. Members deal with qualified people – but we are also people so please help us.”