Auditor’s Professional Issues: Case 7.2–Sarah Russell.

Case summary

Sarah Russell chose began her career in public accounting because of the wide range of opportunities it offered. In her first year, she excelled on the six audits to which she was assigned and passed each section of the CPA exam in her first attempt. An audit partner in the firm, R.J. Bell was very supportive of Sarah during her first year in public accounting. In the second year of Sarah’s employment, R.J. Bell began attempting to establish a personal relationship with her. However, this made Sarah increasingly uncomfortable and distressed as Bell continued to make unwanted advances. Sarah then told Bell that she wanted to keep their relationship strictly on a professional level. However, Bell implied that that Sarah was wrongly accusing him of improper behaviour and made sure that Sarah would not be assigned to any audit engagements that he supervised.  Within a few months, Sarah decided to leave the accounting firm and return to her home state.

Question #1

While Sarah handled the matter in the best way she could, she should not have left the accounting firm. The first thing that Sarah needed to do is talk to R.J. Bell and make him aware that his advances were making her uncomfortable and that she only wanted their relationship to be strictly professional. Another thing that Sarah should have done is approach a manager or supervisor in the accounting firm to seek advice on the best way to handle the situation (Lee, 1999). If she could not find a supervisor to talk to, Sarah should have considered approaching a family member or friend to get their views on how to approach the situation. Another thing that Sarah should have done is to seek HR guidance when Bell persisted even after she discouraged his advances. The HR department should have guided Sarah on what to do and when Bell said that Sarah would not be assigned to any audit engagements that he supervised, she should have sought the advice of the HR department before making the decision to leave. Sarah should have also considered that miscommunications and misinterpretations are bound to happen and should have made sure that she read the message from Bell clearly. Since Bell did not stop making advances and continued making Sarah uncomfortable, Sarah should have considered seeking HR guidance for help in addressing the situation.

Some of the factors that Sarah should have considered in dealing with the situation are whether or not she wanted a relationship with Bell, whether or not she felt harassed as the workplace and whether or not she is protected from such level of harassment as an employee of the accounting firm. Sarah should have also considered her right to report any activity that made her uncomfortable or feel harassed at the workplace and how Bell’s actions would affect her career. Other factors to consider are the rights and responsibilities of both Bell and Sarah at the workplace (Lee, 1999).

Some of the personal and professional responsibilities of Sarah as an employee of the audit firm include: doing the work that she was hired to do, carefully and seriously do her work, follow reasonable instructions and directions regarding workplace safety, respect colleagues and employers, and take reasonable care to ensure the safety of self and others at the workplace. As an audit partner or employer at the accounting firm, Bell had the responsibilities to provide a safe workplace, provide tools and other materials for Sarah to do her work, and treat colleagues and employees with respect and to ensure that employees do not feel harassed or discriminated against. The accounting firm also has the same responsibilities as Bell.

Question #2

Some of costs that Sarah’s employer will directly incur are the loss of professional services that Sarah would have offered and the cost of hiring another employee to fill Sarah’s position. Some of the potential costs that Sarah’s employer could incur in this case are litigation losses if Sarah decides to sue the accounting firm and the loss of credibility if the issue was made public. Further, if the litigation would lead to the employer paying damages, the employer would incur the cost of the financial settlement (Rosenthal, Smidt & Freyd, 2016). The accounting firm could have also used a lot of money to defend its image or even protect the partner involved in the situation.

To prevent these types of situations from occurring, accounting firms should consider several measures. The first thing to consider is put in place workplace policies regarding harassment and gender-related actions and the procedure that employees should follow to report harassment and similar situations that affect their ability to work. Another thing that accounting firms should do is ensure that employees and supervisors understand their rights and responsibilities regarding workplace harassment and how to exercise these rights. Further, firms should investigate the claims and take the necessary measures that might include dismissal of an employer or supervisor who was involved in the harassment. 

Suppose Sarah had told the office managing partner about the situation, the matter should have been addressed in a different way. To start with, the office managing partner should have investigated the claims to protect the rights of both parties. If the investigation showed that the Bell was wrong, the managing partner should have warned Bell. The office managing partners should also have had a talk with Bell about the advances made to Sarah, how the allegations could hurt employees and the partnership and what the business would lose as a result of Bell’s conduct. This would have enabled Bell to recognize the impact of his actions and do his best to rectify the situation. If Bell’s behaviour persisted, and if Sarah continued feeling uncomfortable, the partner should have referred the matter to the firm’s human resource director or top management to deal with the issue professionally and without personal objectivity.  The office managing partner should have supported the outcome of the investigating and the disciplinary measures that were relevant to the situation (Martinez, O’Brien & Hebl, 2017).

Question #3

While the case might have taken place several years ago, events similar to those that took place in this case can occur in the current business setting. Many cases are still reported about junior employees being harassed by senior partners of renowned accounting firms. For instance, according to an article by the Financial Times, Ernst & Young’s South Australian managing partner was recently suspended following claims of sexual harassment by a female employee (Tadros, 2018). This is just one of the many cases that are reported yearly about sexual harassment perpetrated by supervisors or senior partners of big firms. An intriguing fact is that these cases are being reported even though most organizations already have policies against sexual harassment. Further, U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment in the workplace violates the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that makes it unlawful for employers and employees to engage in unwelcomed sexual advances when such conduct could affect the ability of employees to work. 

Policies against sexual harassment have also been supported by the law and court cases. For instance, in two different US Supreme Court rulings, Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998) and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth (1998), the court ruled that it is the duty of organizations to establish and implement sexual harassment policies. In addition, organizations are required to train employees about sexual harassment, what it entails, why it is wrong, how it should be reported and the rights and responsibilities of both the employers and employees about the issue.

According to Cantalupo & Kidder (2017), the main reason why sexual harassment is still being reported even in large global firms is because these organizations are not upholding their policies on sexual harassment. Further, most organizations do not want to admit that sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct do happen in the workplace and some of the perpetrators are senior partners. When organizations fail to have a zero tolerance approach to the issue, the behaviour will continue and events similar to those that took place in the case of Sarah will continue being reported. As long as organizations continue to avoid addressing sexual harassment claims, events similar to those that took place in this case are bound to occur.

 

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