The future of the accountancy sector: a call to break the vicious circle

December 3 2021
Research

Accountants and accountancy firms are both perpetrators and victims of the problems currently facing the sector. Its system of control, advisory tasks, the regulatory pressure that the sector is subjected to, the procedures that need to be followed, and the supervision of organizations are inextricably linked. The current working methods of accountancy firms continue to remain unchanged. This vicious circle needs to be broken in order to prevent the sector from grinding to a halt as a result of more and more checks and controls. This is one of the conclusions drawn in Marlies de Vries' dissertation entitled 'Luctor et emergo? The experiences of young accountants in the Netherlands'. Earlier today, she defended her PhD thesis at Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

"The hierarchical, performance-oriented up-or-out culture, where only a few manage to make it to the top and become a partner, does not match well with the meaning and significance that the younger generation associates with work," according to de Vries.

Docile behavior

De Vries’ research shows that almost all novice accountants demonstrate docile behavior in difficult situations when they experience time pressure. In other words, they do what they are asked to do, even if they do not agree with the request. If a company wants to employ accountants who have the courage to speak out about what they see, according to de Vries, then it is wise to look at their first years of work experience. "It would help to pay much greater attention to professional development rather than technical skills. Many young accountants do not speak out during work and do not oppose instructions to change a sample, to ‘finalize’ a case, or to work overtime on a structural basis. Only those who manage to keep their heads above water in the hustle and bustle of professional life will ultimately make it."

Difficult questions

According to de Vries, it is necessary for young accountants to receive support from their colleagues as well as their managers in this early, formative phase in their careers: "Young accountants do not need to be treated to free pizzas or to go home on time when the workload is high. For them, it is important to feel safe in order to speak out. My research shows that criticism or escalations often lead to negative assessments, or that accountants are taken off a client’s case."

However, dissenting voices can also be heard. As de Vries explains: "When carrying out audits, accountancy firms place a strong emphasis on compliance. Are assignment teams in these organizations really waiting for young accountants to ask time-consuming critical questions? As it is, the workload is high already, and societal demands continue to increase."

The future

In sum, the system in which accountancy professionals operate is a complicated one. "You have to adjust several settings and controls to break the vicious circle," de Vries explains. Her advice and hopes for the future? "That young accountants find themselves unhindered by hierarchy. If they believe that things should be different, then they should be able to say so – and in fact dare to say so. As an accountant, you are by no means a machine that is used for ticking boxes on a checklist, but you are a human being. Be brave and live your life!"

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Marlies de Vries is Director of all controller training programs offered at Nyenrode Business Universiteit, and she is a faculty member at the Center for Auditing, Accounting and Control. In addition, she has been appointed in a personal capacity by the Minister of Finance as Quartermaster Future Accountancy Sector. 

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