I was recently asked what to look for in selecting a small business accountant. I initially answered with the obvious “someone with experience in your business area”. But as soon as I gave this response I knew that this was not the right answer. Or at least not the full answer. The answer I should have given was to first look for someone with integrity. Integrity is a far more important trait to look for in an accountant or any professional person than the extent of knowledge.
The reason for this is simple. Almost all practicing professionals who have high integrity will also be knowledgeable, but more than a few knowledgeable professionals will lack integrity. A professional who has high integrity recognizes that their highest responsibility is providing quality service to their clients. A high integrity professional would not accept a client that they could not serve. For this reason a high integrity professional will seek to insure that they are thoroughly knowledgeable before accepting a client.
A high integrity accountant is also an honest accountant. Yes I know that in the wake of the fall out of the Enron scandal that phrase seemed to become an oxymoron. But a very large number of accountants were as deeply appalled by the behavior of Arthur Anderson auditors as the general public. More than a few of us were deeply appalled by the conduct of our professional organization the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in opposing needed reforms to insure that the auditing process was not tainted by the desire for higher fees.
How can you tell if you are dealing with a high integrity accountant? One telltale sign is their willingness to say “I do not know the answer to that question” or “I think the answer is this thus and so but let me recheck and get back to you”. An honest practitioner who is confident in their own abilities is not bashful about admitting they do not know the answer to every question. The accountants who lack confidence and/ or integrity will attempt to answer every question despite their lack of certainty.
One indicator of an accountant that lacks integrity is one who will boast to you about how he or she will save you lots of money on your tax return. While it is true that a competent and diligent tax professional may be able to save you money compared to lesser trained practitioners beware of practitioners who boast of this. These boasts may be thinly veiled hints that lines will be crossed and unnecessary risks taken. Keep in mind that if a practitioner is willing to cheat the IRS, more than likely they are willing to cheat you too.
Most individuals and business owners shopping for an accountant are not in a good position to gauge directly a practitioner’s competence level. However, during even a brief interview most folks can get at least a sense of whether the person has integrity. It also helps if you can get recommendations from individuals and business owners you know to have integrity. Clients with integrity will usually insist on integrity in their accountants.
Finally, remember it is far easier to acquire and possess knowledge than it is to acquire and possess integrity.