Case Study: A difficult client
The following short story analyses the thoughts and actions of three people during one episode at a fictional public accounting firm.
Fiona Willis had a lot happening in her life right now, and she didn’t really need an angry client on the phone. Fiona was newly married and newly accredited as a Chartered Accountant in the firm Caldwell, Burns and Burns Public Accountants. On top of that, last month her boss, Alex Caldwell, had placed her in charge a large account: Marshall Mining Equipment and Services (MME&S). She was happy to take over this important account, even though the company’s founder, Hugo Marshall, was well known as an abrupt, rude and even bullying personality. On the other hand, MME&S was a good and timely payer of its accounts with Fiona’s firm and was therefore an important revenue source. However, while Hugo Marshall rarely challenged his accounts from the firm, he always demanded results that were fair to him. There were always whispers in the firm that corners had been cut in the past to appease Hugo Marshall. Nothing was proven, so the rumours remained only rumours. Or at least they would until this phone call started.
So now Fiona found herself on the phone to an angry Hugo Marshall, and he was not happy with the results of a recent determination by the Australian Tax Office (ATO). According to Marshall, Fiona’s flawed tax accounting (especially for fringe benefit tax) had resulted in an onerous tax liability imposed by the ATO. Why had this happened only when Fiona had taken over the account, Marshall demanded to know. He proceeded to tell her that her “overly conservative” approach was not suited to an entrepreneurial company and perhaps Marshall should look for a better accountant? Why did Willis report to the ATO that Marshall employees routinely took Marshall fleet vehicles home and garaged them on their private premises? Her predecessors had always been happy to certify that this wasn’t the case! And vehicle log books are not always reliable, are they?
So now Marshall thundered that the only thing that had changed for his business was that Fiona Willis was now doing his accounting and as a result his tax liability had risen sharply. He would look around for a better accounting firm, he informed her, since Caldwell, Burns & Burns were no longer looking after his best interests. In the meantime, he suggested, Fiona had better review her methods and the data she reported to the ATO, otherwise she should expect to have her income halved, and how would she like that? Then she would know how he, Hugo Marshall felt!
After the phone call, Fiona was devastated. No wonder, she realised, no-one else would work on this account. But she was not just upset, she was alarmed. She was confident of her professional judgement, but was there something else she was missing? How could her judgement about Marshall’s tax liability be so different to everyone else’s? She had no easy answer to that, but she had suspicions that were not helpful to her sense of trust of her colleagues.
However, Fiona had a more pressing problem than self-doubt or being harangued by an angry client. Fiona had a clear impression that she had been threatened by Marshall, and in a number of ways. First was a threat to have her sacked or replaced as the accountant in charge of the Marshall account. However, while she was certain that Marshall would complain to the partners of her firm, Fiona was confident that Caldwell would back her—albeit with a dressing down and maybe some further training. However, there was another threat, more disturbing to Fiona.
After Fiona had agreed to take over the Marshall account for Caldwell, Burns and Burns, she discovered that Marshall had been acquiring many local businesses and one of them was the metal fabrication company that her husband worked for. Does this mean that there is a conflict of interest for me, Fiona had wondered at the time. She thought that if she reported this to Alex Caldwell, she would be removed from the account and this account was her big break. So she said nothing. Besides, she thought, she had kept her maiden name and did not take her husband’s name. There was no reason for Marshall or anyone else to make the connection or its significance. What could go wrong? Well, now she knew.
Hugo Marshall was not afraid of a gamble. Ten years ago he had enacted a good strategy while the resources boom was happening and bought up infrastructure to increase the size of his company. Now, feeling that another boom was about to happen, he had taken over several companies and small businesses that allowed Marshall to offer a more complete service package to the resources industry. It was a worry that the resources boom had not yet really taken off, but Marshall was sure that it would happen soon. In the meantime he had to make sure that his accountants didn’t do something silly that would get him into trouble with the tax office.
Marshall had always cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with Alex Caldwell of Caldwell, Burns and Burns. Caldwell could always be relied upon to provide compliant accountants who would report results that were advantageous to Marshall. In return, Marshall would accept inflated invoices from the accounting firm and pay them promptly. Then, if he needed to berate and bully some accountant into revising an unfavourable tax assessment, he knew he could lean on Caldwell to make changes. As he put down the phone to end the call to Fiona Willis he smiled. He knew he could put pressure on Caldwell. Besides, this time he had real “dirt” on Willis that would not make Caldwell happy. Marshall smiled again; time to make that call.
Alex Caldwell was a founder and senior partner of Caldwell, Burns and Burns Public Accountants. He was very proud of his firm, his staff and the fact that the firm was still earning good fees when other firms were struggling. Part of his success was the effort he had put into nurturing the relationship with Hugo Marshall. His “charm offensive”, as he liked to refer to his efforts, meant that Hugo Marshall always felt comfortable with using Caldwell and his accountants.
There was a negative side to this approach, however. Caldwell’s firm had become unhealthily dependent upon Marshall. Worse, Marshall seemed to become more arrogant each year and more abrasive towards Caldwell’s staff. This year any accountant who had worked on Marshall’s account has resigned or simply refused to have anything to do with it. This forced him to put a young staff member in charge of the account, Fiona Willis, who had only recently achieved her Chartered Accountant qualification. Caldwell was very uneasy about this, but what else could he have done?
Caldwell was also uneasy about his own behaviour when responding to Marshall’s increasingly unreasonable demands. In the past Caldwell might have overruled his accountants on small matters, but now Marshall demanded that he falsify data on more important issues. He, Caldwell, had started down a path he had never intended to go down and now Marshall had him trapped. Caldwell was wondering with some dread when the next demand from Marshall would come when his phone rang. It was Marshall! Caldwell sighed and just as he was about to pick up the phone he saw Fiona Willis standing at his doorway looking very pale. This can’t be good, Caldwell thought.
© Gerard L. Ilott CQUniversity 2020.
What you have to do
Assume that you are an expert in business ethics and Alex Caldwell has engaged you to write a report advising him of what he should do about the Hugo Marshall account. Assume that Fiona Willis has also told Caldwell about her potential conflict of interest involving her husband.
Part A: Applying theories of ethics (1,000 words max)
You must undertake independent research into the theories of egoism, utilitarianism and deontology. Now apply them as follows:
- Analyse Fiona Willis’ actions using the theory of egoism
- Analyse Fiona Willis’ actions using the theory of deontology
- Analyse Alex Caldwell’s actions using the theory of utilitarianism.
In each case, you must identify the key feature of the theory being used and show how they apply to the case. Conclude the section by explaining how a theoretical knowledge of of ethics will help Caldwell deal with the Marshall problem.
Part B: Using an ethical decision-making model (500 words max)
Take Caldwell through the AAA decision-making model step-by-step and arrive at the best ethical outcome for him.
Part C: Using APES 110 (1,000 words max)
Alex Caldwell is a Chartered Accountant and so are the accountants in the firm, and therefore APES 110 applies to all of them.
Advise Caldwell of the provisions of APES 110 that are relevant here, especially the fundamental principles, types of threats and relevant safeguards. Advice Caldwell of what he must do to be compliant with APES 110.
You must submit:
You must submit an individually written report about ethical behaviour and ethical decision-making in the following format:
- Title Page
- Executive Summary
- Report of a maximum of 2,500 words, consisting of Parts A, B and C (as shown above). Use headings to clearly indicate which part is being answered.