Most Accountants Aren’t Crooks—Why Good Audits Go Bad

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act sets stiff penalties for auditors and executives who commit fraud. Problem is, says Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman and his collaborators, most bad audits are the result of unconscious bias, not corruption. Here's a new look at how to audit the auditors.
by Max H. Bazerman, George Loewenstein & Don A. Moore

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, signed into law last July, is the government's response to a series of financial reporting scandals that rocked investors. Among other measures the law offers up stiff criminal penalties for accounting fraud. But in this Harvard Business Review excerpt, the authors suggest most accounting errors aren't the result of fraud. Rather, it is unconscious bias that is to blame. Here is a look at those biases, and how they can escalate from a small error of judgment to a big financial nightmare.

Rooting out bias, or at least tempering its effects, will require more fundamental changes to the way accounting firms and their clients operate. If we are really going to restore trust in the U.S. system of auditing, we will need to go well beyond the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. We will need to embrace practices and regulations that recognize the existence of bias and moderate its ill effects. Only then can we be assured of the reliability of the financial reports issued by public companies and ratified by professional accountants.

Professional accountants might seem immune to such biases (after all, they work with hard numbers and are guided by clear-cut standards). But the corporate auditing arena is a particularly fertile ground for self-serving biases. Three structural aspects of accounting create substantial opportunities for bias to influence judgment.

Ambiguity. Bias thrives wherever there is the possibility of interpreting information in different ways. As we saw in the study involving the collision, people tend to reach self-serving conclusions whenever ambiguity surrounds a piece of evidence. While it's true that many accounting decisions are cut-and-dried—establishing a proper conversion rate for British pounds, for instance, entails merely consulting daily foreign exchange rates—many others require interpretations of ambiguous information. Auditors and their clients have considerable leeway, for example, in answering some of the most basic financial questions: What's an investment? What's an expense? When should revenue be recognized? The interpretation and weighting of various types of information are rarely straightforward. As Joseph Berardino, Arthur Andersen's former chief executive, said in his congressional testimony on the Enron collapse, "Many people think accounting is a science, where one number, namely earnings per share, is the number, and it's such a precise number that it couldn't be two pennies higher or two pennies lower. I come from a school that says it really is much more of an art."

The corporate auditing arena is a particularly fertile ground for self-serving biases.
— Bazerman, Loewenstein, and Moore

Attachment. Auditors have strong business reasons to remain in clients' good graces and are thus highly motivated to approve their clients' accounts. Under the current system, auditors are hired and fired by the companies they audit, and it is well known that client companies fire accounting firms that deliver unfavorable audits. Even if an accounting firm is large enough to absorb the loss of one client, individual auditors' jobs and careers may depend on success with specific clients. Moreover, in recent decades, accounting firms have increasingly treated audits as ways to build relationships that allow them to sell their more lucrative consulting services. Thus, from the executive team down to individual accountants, an auditing firm's motivation to provide favorable audits runs deep. As the collision case also showed, once people equate their own interests with another party's, they interpret data to favor that party. Attachment breeds bias.

Approval. An audit ultimately endorses or rejects the client's accounting—in other words, it assesses the judgments that someone in the client firm has already made. Research shows that self-serving biases become even stronger when people are endorsing others' biased judgments—provided those judgments align with their own biases—than when they are making original judgments themselves. 2 In one series of studies, researchers found that people were more willing to endorse an overly generous outcome that favored them than they were to make that judgment themselves. For example, if someone says that you deserve a higher raise than facts might suggest, you are more likely to come to agree with this view than you are to decide on your own that you deserve a higher raise. This kind of thinking implies that an auditor is likely to accept more aggressive accounting from her client than what she might suggest independently.

In addition to these structural elements that promote bias, three aspects of human nature can amplify unconscious biases.

Individual auditors' jobs and careers may depend on success with specific clients.
— Bazerman, Loewenstein, and Moore

Familiarity. People are more willing to harm strangers than individuals they know, especially when those individuals are paying clients with whom they have ongoing relationships. An auditor who suspects questionable accounting must thus choose, unconsciously perhaps, between potentially harming his client (and himself) by challenging a company's accounts or harming faceless investors by failing to object to the possibly skewed numbers. Given this tension, auditors may unconsciously lean toward approving the dubious accounting. And their biases will grow stronger as their personal ties deepen. The longer an accounting partner serves a particular client, the more biased his judgments will tend to be.

Discounting. People tend to be far more responsive to immediate consequences than delayed ones, especially when the delayed outcomes are uncertain. Many human vices spring from this reflex. We postpone routine dental checkups because of the cost and inconvenience and the largely invisible long-term gain. In the same way, auditors may hesitate to issue critical audit reports because of the adverse immediate consequences—damage to the relationship, potential loss of the contract, and possible unemployment. But the costs of a positive report when a negative report is called for—protecting the accounting firm's reputation or avoiding a lawsuit, for example—are likely to be distant and uncertain.

It's our belief that some of the recent financial disasters we've witnessed began as minor errors of judgment and escalated into corruption.
— Bazerman, Loewenstein, and Moore

Escalation. It's natural for people to conceal or explain away minor indiscretions or oversights, sometimes without even realizing that they're doing it. Think of the manager who misses a family dinner and blames the traffic, though he simply lost track of time. Likewise, an auditor's biases may lead her to unknowingly adapt over time to small imperfections in a client's financial practices. Eventually, though, the sum of these small judgments may become large and she may recognize the long-standing bias. But at that point, correcting the bias may require admitting prior errors. Rather than expose the unwitting mistakes, she may decide to conceal the problem. Thus, unconscious bias may evolve into conscious corruption—corruption representing the most visible end of a situation that may have been deteriorating for some time. It's our belief that some of the recent financial disasters we've witnessed began as minor errors of judgment and escalated into corruption. As Charles Niemeier, chief accountant for the SEC's enforcement division, put it: "People who never intend to do something wrong end up finding themselves in situations where they are almost forced to continue to commit fraud once they have started doing this. Otherwise, it will be revealed that they had used improper accounting in the earlier periods."

About the Author

Max H. Bazerman is the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. In addition to this role, he has formally been affiliated with the Kennedy School of Government, the Harvard Psychology Department, the Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences, the Harvard University Center on the Environment, and the Program on Negotiation.