“Social media complaints did not exist a few years ago,” points out Nigel Howell, ICAEW’s Head of Investigation.
Firing off an email and rapidly posting on social media has become commonplace and, that fast-response behaviour is potentially a source of unprofessionalism. “Responding rapidly might not be the best thing to do and that kind of behaviour can escalate,” he says. “These messages can reach a wide audience and they can be there forever.”
Carrie Langridge, Senior Manager – General, Compliance and Tax, concurs. “Previously, when we wrote letters, there would be a delay between writing the letter and posting it. That gave you time to reflect.”
She continues: “This situation is even worse on Twitter, for example. Trying to get across the context for what you are saying in 280 characters is very difficult, and anyone can see these posts. People often forget this is open media. It is one thing sending a single letter to one person, but it is a completely different thing to tweet someone with thousands of followers.”
And let’s not forget that you may well post in a personal capacity, but that post may reflect on your professional role. If the reader knows you are a chartered accountant and is offended by your comment, that could lead to a complaint. “And, if in the post, a member refers to being a chartered accountant, that could make matters worse,” Howell adds. “It could bring disrepute on ICAEW and on the profession. Complaints do not have to be about accountancy work – it can be about any aspect of a member or member firm’s behaviour.”
Digital, or plain old-fashioned non-digital, harassment and bullying can also be the basis for a complaint. “The ‘me too’ movement has filtered through to the profession,” points out Howell. “We have had a lot more complaints related to that type of behaviour in recent years. We are taking these types of complaint very seriously.”
Langridge adds: “This is something members and firms need to be thinking about now because the vast majority of chartered accountants are working from home and they need to be mindful of the boundaries between their professional lives and their private lives.”
There is also behaviour on video calls to manage. Are you on mute when making private comments? “It’s not just on social media that behaviour and comments are open to interpretation,” says Langridge. “Glitchy internet can deliver all sorts of unfortunate facial expressions.” Where there is an existing fractious relationship, this sort of thing could prompt a complaint.
If clients and others are already in a negative relationship with their accountant, it will not take much to make them complain, and that complaint might be more to do with perception, because of digital delivery, than a real issue.
“Members must not over-react to this type of complaint,” insists Howell. “it’s important to respond to the specific issues flagged by the ICAEW team and remain focused.”
Furlough claims are another new category of complaint. Deadlines and confusion over flexibility within the furlough scheme are causing complaints to start coming in. “If members and firms involve themselves in new areas of business, they need to make sure they are fully staffed and have the expertise to carry them off,” says Howell. “These types of complaints are an extension of the types of complaint we have always seen but now there is an added impact to, for example a complaint about delay – it could result in a significant loss of opportunity under a COVID-19 support scheme.”
There are new dimensions to the complaints coming into ICAEW in 2021. Be it digital, unbecoming behaviour or COVID-related matters, members should be mindful of the potential impact of their behaviour and not be surprised if their behaviour falls short of that expected of a chartered accountant, it gives rise to a complaint.