Clients and Having an Arms Length Relationship

Michael Lodge

by Michael Lodge

One issue that I hammer into my staff all the time is the we as tax professionals that we must always have an arms length relationship with our clients.  We can be friendly and professional but never think of clients as friends.  We must always maintain an independence to be able to say things to our clients that need to be said in order to keep them in compliance with the thousands and thousands of tax laws.  Client should always be kept at an arms length so that we do not hurt our independence as tax professionals.  It just has to be done.

Tax Practitioners and their clients have one of the most intimate relationships given the nature that we see our clients full financial and life story.  Yet this relationship must always remain a professional one.  I have heard the line from clients making appointments using the story, “we need to see XYZ accountant because we are friends”.  Well these clients come to the office once a year, that is the only time that the clients sees him but already they are going over the line and perhaps the tax practitioner also.  So we have to listen very carefully that staff are no overstepping the line and letting the client lead them into trouble at some point.  If the Tax Practitioner looses independence of being able to say what needs to be said then the line has been crossed and changes need to be made.

How must we as tax practitioners maintain a warm, engaging, challenging professional relationship with our clients.Here is what I have been observing of the many years in this business.  I have been doing this since 1984 so I speak from experience.

  1. As a tax or business professional you can be very friendly and not have the professional relationship migrate to a friendship.
  2. You can be the keeper of secrets as the client’s tax confidant and treat the person as simply as a great client.  Intimate knowledge doesn’t constitute friendship.
  3. With some clients it is a tempting to bond too much because you enjoy them as a client.  If they are issuing you a check – they are a client – not a friend.
  4. You can advise friends but make sure both of you have decided which is more important to you both.  Do you want honest/strong independent tax services or your friendship.  Can’t be both.  Most friendships are stressed by tax issues if they are clients, some get destroyed by it.  So remain at arms length.
  5. Never get involved with investment relationships with the client.  If they think you are a friend, you get involved in some type of investment, you can not longer have an independent relationship to advise them on a professional basis.  You have now entered into a conflict of interest.  Conflict of interest will always get you into trouble.
  6. If you feel awkward about bringing something up or pointing something out to a client, you may have crossed the line over to friendship.  You have lost your independence.  A professional in the role of tax practitioner would generally be fearless in talking to the client about very important issues.  Maintain a arms length relationship.
  7. Don’t bend the rules.  If you have crossed over the line from client to friend you may be tempted to bend the rules of ethics.  Without ethics you have no client relationship and it will get you into serious trouble.

So with all this being said, if you cross over the line of client / professional relationship, you don’t have an arms length relationship to maintain independence from the client, you have stopped being a professional and may be on the road to unethical behavior with your client and put your firm in danger.  Remain independent – clients are not friends – and keep your arms length relationship to remain professional at all times.

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