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‘Play the ball, not the man’: What to do when you face a professional complaint

Chartered accountants who find themselves on the receiving end of client complaint should remain professional and respond appropriately, says the head of a professional body conduct team.

Professional Development Jotham Lian 22 December 2020
— 2 minute read

Speaking on a recent Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) Acuity podcast, professional conduct team leader Rebecca Stickney revealed that the professional body receives around 350 complaints about members each year, with a vast majority of complaints about public practitioners.

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Complaints are wide and varied, and include issues such as timeliness, competency, quality of engagement, breaches of confidentiality, poor communication, and failing to act with honesty and integrity.

Ms Stickney notes that chartered accountants who find themselves in the unenviable position on the receiving end of complaint should not panic.

“The bulk of complaints are either found to not warrant further action or result in relatively lower-level sanctions. Only the minority of matters are really serious enough to go to the disciplinary tribunal,” Ms Stickney said.

“The first thing is, don’t panic, take a breath, read the complaint. I’ll say to people try to play the ball, not the man; its very easy to get quite upset about receiving a complaint, it can be extremely stressful.

“But the really important thing is we want both sides of the story. Members should absolutely 100 per cent make the most of their opportunity to explain their side of the story. We are looking for appropriate information to verify the matters.”

Chartered accountants who are facing serious complaints may also need to consider additional steps, including their legal options, Ms Stickney said.

“Inappropriate cases, and particularly where its a serious matter, they need to think about informing their professional indemnity insurer,” she added.

“They may need to take legal advice. Its really necessary, and the sooner you do it, the better.”

Avoiding complaints

Ms Stickney believes accountants should review their terms of engagement on a regular basis, noting that a number of complaints have come from disputes that could have been addressed in a letter of engagement.

“The most important thing is to have a really robust terms of engagement, and make sure that its updated regularly,” Ms Stickney said.

“I think you should be seeing that as your fundamental protection.

“Members could potentially also use that as a means to address, what happens if we get into a dispute? This is how I like to handle it. If theres a conflict of interest, this is our approach for dealing with that. Are there any conflicts that need to be foreshadowed up front?”

Being diligent in documenting everything could also be crucial when things go south.

“It is surprising how many members dont document things,” Ms Stickney said. “They may say, I recognise there was a conflict of interest, and I discussed it. But you cant prove that if its not written down somewhere.”

‘Play the ball, not the man’: What to do when you face a professional complaint
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Jotham Lian

Jotham Lian

Jotham Lian is the editor of Accountants Daily, the leading source of breaking news, analysis and insight for Australian accounting professionals.

Before joining the team in 2017, Jotham wrote for a range of national mastheads including the Sydney Morning Herald, and Channel NewsAsia.

You can email Jotham at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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