CPAs are often called “the trusted professionals,” but what this means is often open to interpretation. Do international and domestic accounting students share the same perceptions of what professionalism means in public accounting? The authors share the results of a survey into student perceptions of professionalism, looking specifically at general behavior, the responsibility for developing professionalism, behavior surrounding personal communication devices and social media, and attire and appearance.
* * *
As the U.S. Department of Labor continues to project faster-than-average job growth in the fields of accounting and auditing, accounting majors interested in pursuing careers in public accounting have great opportunities ahead of them. To be a successful CPA, however, one must understand what it means to be a professional. But exactly what do accounting majors—the CPAs of tomorrow—perceive as the necessary traits and behaviors of a professional?
Furthermore, with such a strong job outlook, international undergraduate accounting students will likely be more interested in staying in the United States to work after graduation. How do the perceptions of international accounting students compare to those of their domestic counterparts?
This article presents the results of a survey of undergraduate accounting majors conducted at two U.S. universities, one private and one public. The survey was administered in upper-level accounting courses to students with junior- and senior-level academic standing.
The surveys contained both open- and closed-ended questions (see Exhibit) designed to examine students’ perceptions of professionalism in four primary areas:
- General traits and behaviors
- Responsibility for developing professionalism
- Communication devices and social media
- Attire and appearance.
The authors received 96 usable responses, with approximately one-third of those responses coming from international students and the remaining two-thirds from domestic students. The median age of the students was 23 for the domestic students and 21 for the international students. Forty-two percent of the students surveyed were female, and 58% were male. Almost all of the students indicated that they were either planning to become a CPA or were at least interested in the possibility.
General Traits and Behaviors
In an open-ended question, students were asked to rank the three most important traits that an accountant practicing in a CPA firm should exhibit in order to be viewed as professional, as well as the three most unprofessional traits. Both international and domestic students indicated that being honest and ethical was the most important trait associated with being considered professional. Not surprisingly, both groups also listed being dishonest and unethical as the most unprofessional trait.
Without regard to rank, being honest and ethical was also the trait most often listed by international and domestic students, with almost 50% of each group including it on their list of essential traits. Both groups also listed having appropriate knowledge of accounting second most often; domestic students listed being respectful third most often, while international students listed being timely third most often.
There were some interesting differences between the two student groups. International students frequently identified being responsible and conscientious as important professional traits, whereas domestic students did not specifically articulate the importance of those traits. In addition, while domestic students frequently identified being disrespectful and rude as unprofessional traits, international students did not emphasize these. Finally, approximately 25% of international students indicated the importance of a positive attitude, while less than 10% of domestic students listed that as an important professional trait.
Is a student responsible for developing the traits and behaviors associated with professionalism, or does responsibility lie with another party, such as parents, employers, or college staff?
In an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of student perceptions of professionalism, the authors listed 12 traits for students’ consideration, such as being punctual, organized, timely, and eager to learn (see Exhibit for full list). The students were asked to rate the relative importance of these traits to a CPA firm’s perception of an individual’s professionalism using a 5-point scale (1=not important, 3=somewhat important, 5=extremely important).
Both the international and domestic students overwhelmingly assigned a high level of importance to all 12 of the specified traits, with the average of all responses falling between “very important” and “extremely important.” Interestingly, domestic students consistently assigned a slightly higher level of importance to all of the listed traits except “positive attitude,” which both groups of students recognized as equally important.
Responsibility for Developing Professionalism
The survey asked students who should bear the responsibility of developing professionalism in those entering the accounting profession. Is a student responsible for developing the traits and behaviors associated with professionalism, or does responsibility lie with another party, such as parents, employers, or college staff? More than half of international and domestic students believed that responsibility should lie with the student. The other parties most often identified by both groups of students were colleges and employers.
When asked who is currently bearing this responsibility, however, the two groups responded quite differently. More than half of domestic students perceived themselves as currently bearing the responsibility for developing their own professional behavior. Therefore, domestic students seem to perceive the responsibility as being aligned with their expectations—that is, students should be and are responsible for developing the professional behaviors that will be expected of them in the public accounting profession.
In comparison, less than one-third of international students perceived themselves as currently bearing the responsibility for developing their own professional behavior; instead, almost half of international students perceive their college or university as bearing that responsibility. Understandably, it seems that international students rely a great deal upon their colleges and universities to help them fill that gap and gain a better understanding of the traits and behaviors that will be expected of them by the public accounting profession in the United States.
Use of Communication Devices and Social Media
Interruptions to the workday due to personal reasons are certainly nothing new; however, the increase in communication devices available means more opportunities for self-interruption. In that regard, students were asked to indicate whether the use of certain communication devices and social media for personal purposes is acceptable during the workday using a 3-point scale (1=never, 2=sometimes, 3=always).
Asked whether it is acceptable for cell-phones to be used for personal calls or text messages during the workday, a majority of both international and domestic students indicated that those practices would “sometimes” be acceptable. The students were then asked whether it would be acceptable to engage in those types of communications during a work meeting. In that more specific context, a majority of both groups indicated that such a practice would “never” be acceptable. It is worth noting, however, that domestic students ranked this behavior as “never” acceptable at a much higher rate (86%) than international students (61%).
When asked in general terms whether the Internet should be used for personal purposes during the workday, the responses of international and domestic students closely aligned. Both groups were roughly split, with approximately one-half of each group indicating that the Internet should “never” be used for personal purposes and the other half indicating that it was “sometimes” acceptable. When asked more specifically about posting to or checking personal social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram during the work-day, both groups of students found this practice to be much less acceptable.
For the most part, the two groups exhibited a great deal of consistency in terms of what they viewed as acceptable use of communication devices for personal purposes during the workday. Both would like to see CPA firms use formal, written policies addressing the acceptable and unacceptable use of communication devices and social media during the workday and then train their staff on those policies. Indeed, more than 80% of both student groups indicated that CPA firms should have such a policy in place. As will be seen below, this indicates that students are more uncertain as to what is considered appropriate when it comes to communication devices in the workplace than when it comes to attire.
Attire and Appearance
Students were asked to consider how much influence their chosen attire and general appearance might have on the perception of their professionalism in a CPA firm using a 5-point scale (1=not at all influential, 3=somewhat influential, 5=extremely influential). Seventy-four percent of international students and 88% of domestic students rated attire and appearance as “very” or “extremely” influential. Again using a 5-point scale (1=never, 3=sometimes, 5=always), students were asked to consider whether the following specific characteristics of attire and appearance would negatively influence a CPA firm’s perception of their professionalism: inappropriate attire, inappropriate footwear, poor personal hygiene, facial piercings (other than ears), visible tattoos, and unusual hair color. With average responses well above 50%, both international and domestic students indicated that all of these characteristics are likely to have a negative influence on a CPA firm’s perception of their professionalism.
Looking at specific characteristics, international students thought that both poor personal hygiene and inappropriate attire would be viewed the most negatively, while domestic students also thought that poor personal hygiene would be viewed the most negatively. International students thought that facial piercings would be viewed the least negatively, whereas domestic students thought that inappropriate footwear would be the least bothersome.
While both groups indicated that all of these characteristics are likely to be viewed negatively by CPA firms, international students did not think that any of these characteristics would be viewed quite as negatively as domestic students did. The greatest difference between the two groups could be seen with respect to facial piercings, visible tattoos, and unusual hair color. For example, 71% of domestic students thought that unusual hair color would “very often” or “always” be viewed negatively, whereas only 42% of the international students had the same view. The two groups had a similar spread with respect to facial piercings and visible tattoos.
More than 60% of both international and domestic students indicated that CPA firms should have a formal, written dress code.
A majority of both international and domestic students indicated that inappropriate attire would “very often” or “always” negatively influence a CPA firm’s perception of their professionalism. What then constitutes “inappropriate attire” in the minds of these two student groups? In an open-ended question, the authors asked the students to briefly describe what they consider to be inappropriate office attire for both men and women.
Revealing clothing (e.g., short skirts, low-cut tops) and casual footwear (e.g., sandals, flip-flops) were most often identified as being inappropriate office attire for women by both international and domestic students. Clothing and footwear that could be characterized as being “too casual” were also identified frequently by both student groups as being inappropriate office attire for women. Specific casual attire and footwear mentioned included jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, and athletic shoes.
With respect to inappropriate office attire for men, both international and domestic students most often identified clothing and footwear that would be deemed “too casual.” Specific attire and footwear mentioned by both groups included shorts, jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, sandals, flipflops, and athletic shoes.
The student responses show a great deal of consistency in terms of the specific types of attire that both international and domestic students consider inappropriate for men and for women. Asked whether they would like to have firms inform them about appropriate attire through a formal dress code document, more than 60% of both international and domestic students indicated that CPA firms should have a formal, written dress code and educate their new hires and interns on that dress code.
Communicating Expectations Clearly
For the most part, both international and domestic accounting undergraduate students are highly consistent in their perceptions of the traits and behaviors that they believe will be expected of them as accountants newly hired by CPA firms. While they did have some differences in secondary emphasis, it is encouraging to see agreement around the primary importance of being honest and ethical.
Although both domestic and international students feel that they are primarily responsible for developing and understanding professionalism, international students indicated that they currently rely primarily on their colleges and universities to help them with this. Once hired by CPA firms, these students may look to the CPA firms to step into that role, at least initially.
Both groups believe it would be highly useful for CPA firms to develop formal, written dress codes and policies addressing the acceptable or unacceptable use of communication devices and social media during the workday. Establishing such documents provides firms with an opportunity to eliminate confusion and establish clear communication to their new hires.
Again, students from both groups seem to understand the importance of attire and appearance. The only significant difference between groups is that international students do not think that facial piercings, visible tattoos, and unusual hair color will be viewed nearly as negatively as domestic students. This may be something that firms want to communicate more clearly if these traits are a concern for them.
The authors are encouraged by the results of this survey. Accounting students, both international and domestic, are coming to a better understanding and appreciation of what it means to be a professional, and are eager to understand what is expected of them as new interns and employees in the profession.