Magazine article The CPA Journal

Communication Skills and Accounting: Do Perceptions Match Reality?

Magazine article The CPA Journal

Communication Skills and Accounting: Do Perceptions Match Reality?

Article excerpt

A large body of research confirms that accounting professionals and educators believe that communications skills are vital for success in the accounting profession. Over the past few decades, there have been calls for the accounting college curriculum to improve students' communication skills, and many schools have undertaken efforts to address deficient oral or written skills, with varying results. One major issue may be that the profession tends initially to attract students who believe that mathematical or technical skills are most important, including a segment of students who believe that a lack of communication skills will not hinder their progress in the profession.

Surveys of college students in 1998 and again in 2006 were conducted to measure whether accounting majors have a greater fear of oral communication than other business and nonbusiness majors, and whether this situation changed over time. The surveys also measured students' perceptions of the level of communication skills required in 24 professions, including accounting and tax preparation. The results indicate that there is a continuing lack of knowledge among students of the importance of oral and written communication in accounting, but there may be signs that students entering accounting have less apprehension toward communication than in the past.

Are Oral Communications Skills Really Important?

The importance of oral communication in accounting has been confirmed by both academic researchers and practitioners. In a review of eight studies conducted by business and education organizations - from a 1989 Big Eight white paper to a 2003 report by the International Federation of Accountants' Education Committee - skill in communicating was listed as an important proficiency for success in accounting in all eight studies (K. N. Palmer, D. E. Ziegenfuss, and R. E. Pinsker, 'International Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities of Auditors/Accountants: Evidence from Recent Competency Studies," Managerial Auditing Journal, vol. 1, no. 7, 2004).

Another study surveyed recently promoted partners about the skills they found most important in progressing from staff to senior, senior to manager, and manager to partner. Communication skills were rated as either most important or second most important at the first two promotion levels for both audit and tax, most important in achieving partner in audit, and third most important in achieving partner in tax (Cindy Blanthorne, Sak Bhamornsiri, and Robert E. Guinn, "Are Technical Skills Still Important?" The CPA Journal, March 2005). In addition, developments such as the compliance requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the move toward International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) have increased the need for accountants to communicate the implications of ever more complex issues to the public.

Students' Perceptions

Several studies have investigated student perceptions of the skills needed by accountants. In a 2004 study, researchers examined accounting and nonaccounting majors' impressions of accountants through a survey of 58 different characteristics. The results show that many students perceived accountants as merely number crunchers. Accountants generally were seen as professional but not particularly personable. They were noted as "skilled in math and tax work and attentive to detail, but were not considered particularly admirable, exciting, outgoing, versatile, or strong in leadership capabilities," following the stereotype (Steven C. Hunt, A. Anthony Falgiani, and Robert C. Intrieri, "The Nature and Origin of Students' Perceptions of Accountants," Journal of Education for Business, vol. 79, no. 3, January-February 2004).

A recent study explored the skills students believe are necessary for success in different areas of business. Accounting majors ranked math skills significantly more important for success in the accounting field than either oral communication or writing skills. …

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