06 May 2020

Teacher and counsellor. Or examiner and market guardian? A thesis recently presented at Linköping University shows that auditors can play very different roles, depending on their work situation and whom they identify with.

Johanna Sylvander at the public disputation.
Johanna Sylvander during the public disputation. In the foreground her supervisor Pernilla Broberg. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

A Roman god

The cover of Johanna Sylvander’s doctoral thesis The influence of clients on the social identities within the audit profession shows Janus, the Roman god who is traditionally depicted with two faces. The duality of the image symbolises the different roles and identities that an auditor can have.

Johanna Sylvander investigates in the thesis how social interactions with various actors such as colleagues, audit agencies and clients influence the roles that auditors take. She examines in particular the two concepts “independence” and “professionalism”, and how they can differ between different groups.

Professionalism is defined as the occupational values that guide auditors’ professional behaviour. Independence is influenced by the social groups that auditors identify with.

“These are two central concepts – for the auditors, the agencies, and society in general. In particular, they are crucial for confidence in the auditing industry”, says Johanna Sylvander.

Bigger and smaller group

Two types of auditor are described in the thesis: small-client auditors and large-client auditors. These have been identified through interviews and questionnaire-based investigations with both established auditors and those preparing for the profession.

Small-client auditors make up the largest group, and are often described as teachers who help clients to run their business better and avoid problems with, for example, tax authorities. They often have a good and close relationship with their clients. The large-client auditors, in contrast, consider themselves to be more of an independent examiner and guardian of the market in general. Their relationships with their clients are more distant.

The differences are clear, despite the profession of auditor being the same in the two cases.

“But I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. When you think about how significant the differences between companies can be, it’s clear that the auditor cannot play the same role in a small company as in a large one. The regulations are also different. We know from other contexts that people adapt to the situation they are in. It would be strange if this wasn’t true also of the auditing industry”, says Johanna Sylvander.

Some obvious risks

At the same time, there are obvious risks with this distinct dichotomy. It may be that students expect one type of work when they qualify and must in reality deal with something completely different, giving rise to what is known as an “expectation gap”. And there is also a risk that society’s expectations on auditors are not fulfilled if the auditors are working in a different manner.

The role of teacher, in particular, can be problematical if the relationship with the client becomes too close. In the worst case, independence may be compromised, and the auditor becomes more concerned about what is best for the client than society’s need for correct accounting.

“There is, however, also a strength in the role of teacher, not least during the current corona crisis. In many cases, the auditors can play a major role in ensuring the survival of small companies, and this is, of course, also extremely important from a societal perspective”, says Johanna Sylvander.

More than career

The two roles of auditors are described and analysed in the introductory summary of the thesis. In one of the articles included in the thesis, Johanna Sylvander investigates the expectations students have for their future workplaces. The auditing industry has a clear hierarchical structure, and employees are expected to be ambitious. This is sometimes described as “up or out”, meaning that an employee who does not climb the corporate ladder is expected, indeed compelled, to leave the company.

Clarity and career opportunities attract many students, but these are not enough. They want more.

“The students want to see development in their current situation, not sometime in the future. They want to be seen and heard immediately. You could say that the agencies give the students what they want, development, but not in the way they want it.”

Translated by George Farrants


Read more about the research at LiU

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