ETHICS INFLUENCE THE BOTTOM LINE Accounting firm goes beyond tough state requirements


If steady hands and cool judgment are a surgeon's stock in trade, accuracy and integrity are an accountant's, says Alicia J. Foster.

Accounting firms can self-destruct if they're not highly proficient and totally aboveboard, says Ms. Foster, an audit partner with Abrams, Foster, Nole & Williams. She helped draft the 7-year-old firm's code of ethics.

"The downside of not being objective is the danger of losing your license," Ms. Foster says. "That's the very worst scenario. We're governed by the state Board of Public Accountancy. That board could suspend our license if we are not following the code of ethics to which we aspire."

A firm's partners are liable not only for the conduct of their staff but also for any work that is performed, she adds.

Although the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants sets ethical standards, Abrams, Foster's partners took those requirements a step further in the firm's ethics code. For example, the firm inserted a stipulation regarding employee conduct when dealing with clients, something not required by the AICPA.

"From our inception, we determined that we would operate under a very strict code of ethics," Ms. Foster says, noting that the code was created during a management retreat.

She adds, "One thing we are aware of in the profession is: How you're perceived is as important as what you're actually doing. In other words, appearance is just as important as a fact."

The firm's manual lays out what is expected of employees -- whether they're in Abrams, Foster's office in the Village of Cross Keys, or at a client's business.

Among other things, Abrams, Foster's ethics code requires accountants to perform their jobs objectively. The code prohibits accountants from tackling responsibilities they're not qualified to assume and bans them from submitting unrealistically low bids for contract work. It even establishes a dress code.

"I monitor our performance of services and whether or not we adhere to our code of ethics," Ms. Foster says. "We do it both formally and informally, via partner meetings where we talk about some of our clients."

Violations of Abrams, Foster's ethics code call for the guilty party to be reprimanded -- and fired if the problem goes uncorrected. "We have not had any violations since we've been in business," Ms. Foster says. "Our philosophy is to discuss ethical matters with our staff immediately when they're hired."

Because accounting firms have so many competitors, "you have to impress clients with the way you do business," Ms. Foster says.

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