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What Drives Difficult Auditor-Client Interactions?

The relationship between an auditor and their clients is very complex and often met with conflict. Here, researchers explore these dynamics to identify areas for improvement. By Joshua Herbold, Ph.D., CPA | Winter 2023

When I teach accounting courses, the students and I start off in what I call “Homeworkland.” In Homeworkland, the numbers work out nicely, all the characters behave ethically and rationally, predictions are accurate, the rules are clear, and there’s one—and only one—answer to every question. While visiting Homeworkland, we gloss over the intricacies of human motivation—not to mention the interaction of multiple humans and motivations—so that we can focus on learning the material in its most basic form. Pretty quickly, we leave Homeworkland and talk about the complicated and oftentimes messy “real world” because, of course, that’s where we actually live, and things get interesting here.


While audit regulation assumes that clients cooperate with and are helpful to auditors, experts warn that isn’t always the case.

Recent research from Christine Gimbar, Ph.D., MAcc, associate professor of accounting and management information systems at DePaul University, and her co-authors Melissa Carlisle, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University, and J. Greg Jenkins, Ph.D., MS, professor at Auburn University, examines what happens when auditors leave Homeworkland and start working with real people. Discussing their research article, “Auditor-Client Interactions—An Exploration of Power Dynamics During Audit Evidence Collection,” Gimbar notes: “The relationship between the auditor, the audit client’s management, and investors is very complex. Management pays the auditor, but the auditor is working for investors, and the audits are mandated by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations. So, there’s an issue because the auditor is supposed to be protecting the public interest, but when I was in practice, we’d always talk about having a client service role and working with the client to conduct the audit. That’s a really difficult dynamic to navigate.”

Gimbar and her co-authors began their exploration of this dynamic by interviewing staff auditors (associates and seniors) from Big Four and regional audit firms. The interviews were conducted on a semi-structured basis; the same five pre-written questions were used to guide each interview, but the researchers interrupted the interviewees as little as possible to allow them to discuss any aspect of their audit experiences.

“Basically, what we're trying to look at is how interactions go between staff level auditors and their clients during audit evidence collection. How do they ask the client for information and data? How do they obtain those things? How do they encounter clients?” Gimbar says.

Interactions between staff auditors and clients are especially important today considering more complicated tasks are being driven down to lower levels of the audit team. According to the AICPA’s CPA Evolution webpage, “Procedures historically performed by newly licensed CPAs are being automated, offshored or performed by paraprofessionals. Now, entry-level CPAs are performing more procedures that require deeper critical thinking, problem-solving, and professional judgment, and responsibilities traditionally assigned to more experienced personnel are being pushed down to the staff level.”


While conducting interviews, Gimbar and her co-authors uncovered an apparent “social mismatch” between staff auditors and their clients, with all auditors stating they had a negative experience. Here’s what they learned:

  • Client personnel sometimes exert control over the audit through unfriendly and hostile behaviors.
  • Interviewees often feel inexperienced and unprepared for client interactions.
  • Addressing challenging audit issues can lead to difficult interactions.

While there are no studies that measure the proportion of audit clients that are unfriendly or hostile to the auditors, Gimbar says, “The one thing we can hang our hat on is, when we asked about negative or hostile client interactions, every single person could tell a story. Every staff auditor we interviewed had that experience.”

Notably, staff auditors often felt that client personnel didn’t understand the purpose of the audit or why the staff auditors were requesting particular pieces of information. Unfriendly clients also tended to show a misunderstanding of the audit methodology and sometimes even questioned the abilities of the auditors.

As one interviewee noted: “The controller didn’t directly say that we were dumb or anything, but she told us both that we don’t know anything, that we shouldn’t need to ask these questions every year, and, you know, she’s an expert in what she does, and we’re not qualified to do this.”

Other negative auditor experiences included interactions with unfriendly clients who:

  • Were in a bad or temperamental mood.
  • Required auditors to formally request meetings with client personnel (as opposed to informal conversations).
  • Ignored or were slow to reply to information requests.
  • Claimed requested documents had already been provided.
  • Effectively forced auditors to conduct remote audits.
  • Frequently moved the engagement team from one room to another.

Most interviewees also felt inexperienced and unprepared relative to their clients. These kinds of interactions clearly have the potential to impact audit results. One interviewee described it this way: “Let’s say you don’t mesh well with the controller, your main person getting you information and answering 80% of your questions for the audit. There’s no one else to go to. So, you’re kind of stuck.”

Additionally, while prior research has shown similar social mismatches between staff auditors and clients, Gimbar says the effect is likely to be worse now that more client engagements are being performed by newer CPAs: “We hear from firms who say, ‘We want to hire students who we can put in front of clients.’ They want to hire students that can interact with senior client personnel. But greater differences in experience, knowledge, and age lead to greater social mismatches in auditor-client interactions, and audit staff feel it.”


When responding to or dealing with unfriendly clients, Gimbar says staff auditors reported spending more time:

  • Preparing for interactions.
  • Getting help from other auditors on the engagement team.
  • Explaining the relevant audit issue to client personnel.
  • Ingratiating themselves to the client.

Interviewees also reported sometimes delaying client interactions or avoiding clients.

In the first two interviews they conducted, Gimbar and her co-authors noticed that both interviewees, while talking about avoiding clients, mentioned something that the researchers refer to as “ghost ticking.” In academic research, ghost ticking is more formally known as a “premature signoff,” which happens when auditors document having completed tasks without actually having performed those tasks.

In fact, nearly half of the interviewees said they had engaged in ghost ticking and one-third reported that they were aware of ghost ticking done by others.

“These behaviors absolutely can affect audit quality,” Gimbar warns. “Our project is one of the first few papers to document that ghost ticking happens. Not only is it happening, but staff auditors are willing to admit to it and tell us about it. They may think to themselves, ‘My work is low risk, what I’m doing isn’t all that important. Will this really change the audit opinion? Probably not.’ But that audit evidence is the foundation for everything else in the audit.”

Overall, Gimbar stresses interactions with unfriendly clients can be and need to be improved if we want to retain CPAs in the audit profession: “I’m a former auditor. I’m trying to improve auditors’ experiences and, in turn, attract people to the profession.”

Importantly, both auditors and clients have roles to play in improving their interactions. On the client side, they need to understand that auditors aren’t coming in to do an efficiency audit—these audits are required by the SEC. And on the auditor’s side? “There needs to be more coaching of staff auditors on difficult interactions,” Gimbar suggests. “That way, staff can be prepared for the worst but hope for the best.”

Joshua Herbold, Ph.D., CPA, is a teaching professor of accountancy and associate head in the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and sits on the Illinois CPA Society Board of Directors.


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