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Writing skills of new accounting hires: the message is mixed.

Taxpayers and practitioners agree that the Internal Revenue Code and its related regulations are neither clear nor concise. And yet, as the foundation of the study and practice of taxation, their language has had an impact on the writing skills (or lack thereof) of accounting and tax students for decades. What message does this convey to students about writing skills in the practice of accounting and tax? At best, a "mixed" one.

Only recently have professors and practitioners seemed to be unified in their advice to students to view accounting as an information business, in which the "product" is sold (in part) through effective writing skills, with success measured (in part) by such skills. Among those that have recognized the importance of well-written communications: the Accounting Education Change Commission has identified a variety of skills and competencies necessary for accounting students, including written communication skills; the AICPA Board of Examiners has begun to test writing skills on the Uniform CPA Exam (in addition to technical knowledge); the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business has asked schools to add writing courses to meet accreditation guidelines; and many university accounting departments have changed their graduation requirements to include move writing courses and to integrate writing into more courses overall. Most of these events were prompted by practitioners' frequent comments to educators about the disappointing quality of new accounting hires' writing skills and the need to improve them.

And yet, this burden seems to rest predominantly with academia. Although the message is clear that well-developed writing skills are essential for acquiring and maintaining a career in accounting and tax, only one Big 6 firm, Coopers & Lybrand (C&L), has integrated writing exercises into its interview and hiring process.

Suggestions for Practitioners

All firms should integrate some form of writing assessment into the interview and hiring process. Writing samples could borrow from the models used in law firms, in behavior-based interviewing (BBI) or in teaching client responsiveness.

* Law firm model: Law firms have always required a writing sample in the hiring process; generally, this consists of a memorandum of law or an appellate brief prepared for a legal research and writing class, for a moot court competition or for an employer during an internship. Such written work products are tangible evidence of a recruit's writing skills. Because law students know that writing samples are required in the hiring process, they come prepared. If accounting firms required writing samples, universities and accounting students would quickly adjust to accommodate such reasonable requests.

* BBI model: More and more accounting firms have adapted their hiring procedures to use the BBI model. BBI is generally designed to focus on a recruit's "core competencies," those underlying characteristics (such as motivation, self-concept, values, attitude, skills and knowledge) that have a direct bearing on employee behavior, job performance and personnel fit within an organization and its culture. (See "Making the Right Hire: Behavioral Interviewing," The Tax Adviser, Sept. 1996,p. 570.)

In the process of using BBI and core competencies, some firms rely on writing exercises as an assessment tool during the hiring process. For example, in Fall 1996, C&L launched a national initiative that required two writing samples from each recruit who made it to the office interview level. Prior to the office interview, recruits wrote about projects in which they had been involved; during the office interview, they were asked to write for approximately 20 minutes about several different situations.

Brent Inman, a C&L partner and National Director of Recruiting, explained that the first writing samples were designed to assess recruits' competency, while the second set was designed to assess role-fit within the firm. The use of writing samples in hiring was tested for two lines of business, Business Assurance and Consulting. According to Mr. Inman, C&L Cluster Recruiting Leaders found the writing exercises to be extremely helpful, with some "top candidates" clearly rejected because of deficient writing skills. C&L was so pleased with its results that, starting in Fall 1997, all of its lines of business -- including tax -- will will use writing samples as an assessment tool in the hiring process of new accountants.

* Client responsiveness model: In an effort to sensitize students to the needs of clients and the importance of good writing skills, some professors of accounting and tax have designed "writing-to-learn" exercises for their classes. Many of these classroom assignments could be adapted for use by practitioners in the hiring process. For example, at the campus interview level, firms frequently take along "greeters" (generally, accountants with one to three years' experience) to "warm up" recruits. These newer accountants generally relate better to the recruits and chat with them on a "peer level" before the more formal interviews with partners or managers. During the warm-up period, greeter could administer "client responsiveness" writing exercises. Such an exercise might be patterned after one designed and used by the author with her undergraduate tax students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (See the section, "Client Responsiveness Exercises in Writing" later in this column.)

Suggestions for Educators

While not all professors integrate writing assignments into their accounting and tax courses, they should. Some ideas might include:

* Academic organizations: Access to information is getting easier and quicker Internet web pages provide professors with the opportunity to find and share ideas concerning syllabi, courses, examinations and assignments (including writing assignments). For example, the American Accounting Association (AAA), a national organization composed primarily of accounting professors, and the AICPA, a national organization composed primarily of practitioners (and their respective sections of taxation), have websites:

* ASS -- http://www.rutgers.edu/ Accounting/raw/aaa/aaa.htm

* AICPA -- http://www.aicpa.org

Other pertinent websites are listed in Schmidt, Spindle and Yancey, "Tapping the World Wide Web," Journal of Accountancy, Aug. 1996, p. 73.

* Client Responsiveness Exercises in Writing (CREW): Several years ago, the author was inspired to design add implement writing assignments in her undergraduate tax classes. The inspiration came from an article written by Claire May (a professor of English) (or the Institute of Management Accountants entitled "Accountants Need Effective Writing Skills," which noted that "[a]s many as one-third of the accounting firms surveyed were dissatisfied with the communication skills of entry-level accountants" and that "a high percentage of firms reported poor writing skills as a major reason for job terminations."

Armed with the strong belief that professors have a responsibility not only to see students graduate and move into the business world, but also to apprise students of the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in that world, this author then experimented with a series of writing assignments. Using The Wall Street Journals "Tax Report" (WSJ Tax Report), CREW evolved as "writing-to-learn" assignments for undergraduate tax classes (with the added benefit of getting students in the lifelong-learning habit of following current and topical tax events). The guidelines on page 520 are provided in the course syllabus distributed to the author's students on the first day of class.

Generally, students are quite anxious about writing assignments. Therefore, the first one can serve as a trial run, but all other grades are recorded. In addition to the peer-reviewers, the author closely reviews the assignments in the first few weeks and adjusts grades and comments accordingly, until both the writers and peer-reviewers are more synchronized with the objectives of the writing assignments. (Interested readers may contact the author for copies of a grid used to grade the CREW assignments.)

Although the CREW assignments were designed for classroom use, they are easily adapted for use in the hiring process. Firm greeters could administer the assignment and WSJ Tax Report to the recruits, who would spend 15 minutes completing the task on behalf of a "client." The greeters would then serve as the peer-reviewers, while the partners and managers would make the final evaluation of the recruits' writing abilities. This short writing assignment provides tangible and useful evidence of writing effectiveness and responsiveness to client needs. This may prove to be a better hiring assessment tool of writing skills than the normal measuring sticks (such as grade-point average, class rank and grades in English courses).

Reference Books

Grammar and composition handbooks are an indispensable tool in the classroom and the workplace. The following list includes several writing reference handbooks that would be a valuable addition to any accountant's library. (The ISBN is for the book version, unless otherwise noted. Most handbooks are priced between (15-$35.)

* Hacker, A Writer's Reference (3d edition, 1995) [ISBN 0-312-13417-71

* Hacker, Bedford Handbook for Writers (4th edition, 1994) [ISBN 0-312-13701-4]

* Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual (1993) [ISBN 0-312-13911-X]

* Hacker, Rules for Writers (3d edition, 1996) [ISBN 0- 312-14849-6] (From Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press (phone: 800-877-535 1, ext. 340))

* Lunsford and Connors, The Everyday Writer (1997) [book version: ISBN 0-312-09569-4, CD version: ISBN 0-312-16729-6, Win Disk version: ISBN 0-312-16728-8] (From St. Martin's Press (phone: 800-877-5351, ext. 340))

* DiYanni & Hoy, The Scribner Handbook for Writers (2d edition, 1997) [ISBN 0-20-519678-0] (From Allyn and Bacon (phone: 800-278-3525))

* May and May, Effective Writing: A Handbook for Accountants (4th edition, 1997) [ISBN 0-13-341736-0] (From Prentice Hall (phone: 800-223-1360))

Conclusion

The mixed message currently sent to new accountants concerning the importance of good writing skills must be eliminated. To better prepare students for the accounting profession and for lifelong learning professors of accounting and tax must integrate appropriate writing assignments into their courses. To hire effective communicators, practitioners should require recruits to submit writing samples during the interview process. A united front by academics and practitioners will help convince students and new hires -- the the future of the profession -- of the value of honing their communication skills. From Faye Bradwick, CPA, J.D., LL.M., Associate Professor of Taxation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Penn. (Bradwick@ GROVE.IUP.EDU)

Guidelines for CREW Assignments: Client Responsiveness Exercises in Writing

On most Fridays, you will be asked to take five minutes in class to finely tune your weekly assignment based on The Wall Street Journal's "Tax Report," a front-page column in the Wednesday issue. This is a "writing-to-learn" exercise and is designed to make you responsive to the needs of your clients. Success dictates that you prepare this "closed universe" assignment before coming to class. ("Closed universe" means no research is necessary; complete the assignment with the information contained in the newspaper column.) Follow these guidelines:

I. Prepare a well-crafted and well-written Q&A about a noteworthy topic in the current week WSJ Tax Report. a. Make sure you understand the topic. b. Don't write about what you don't know, as it will show. c. Don't pick something too complex or your audience (the client) will not understand. Purpose: This assignment is designed to simulate the kind of short, tight, succinct writing you will be required to perform in business for tax and accounting workpapers and in memos to clients and colleagues.

II. To be on the safe side, assume your audience (client) know nothing about this aspect of tax. Does this Q&A do a good job of communicating and educating about your chosen topic and is it in your own words? a. Is the topic of your Q&A "of value" to your client? Will your client be willing to pay 50-$75 for your services and work product? [Note: In the business world, you will convey your work product in a variety of forms, including reports, memoranda, business letters, phone calls and e-mail.] b. Is your work product in edited standard written English (ESWE)? This includes organization, clarity, sentence structure, transitions, grammar, spelling and proofreading. Failure to comply with ESWE could result in a zero for the assignment. Purpose: In this assignment, the student must effectively communicate information. Remember: Accounting is not merely a "number-crunching" profession; it is, in fact, a communication profession, and "number-crunching" is but one of the ways information is quantified and disseminated.

III. These assignments will be "peer-reviewed" in class. Each student will evaluate another student's paper. The peer-reviewer will write appropriate and constructive comments and will award one of three grades: + 10 points = "A" paper: The student has achieved the objectives outlined in the assignment with high quality. + 5 points = "C" paper: The student has not achieved the objectives outlined in the assignment; the student needs improvement and should seek assistance at the English Department's Writing Center. + 0 points = "F" paper: The student missed class, was late for class, prepared the wrong assignment, prepared no assignment and/or the student's efforts and results were extremely weak and therefore unsatisfactory. Purpose: The peer-review process is intended to provide valuable and professionally supportive feedback to the writers, as well as a cooperative-learning experience for both writers and reviewers. Over the course of the semester, students will be better able to identify well-written communications. In the process, students should become more responsive to the needs of their audience (clients) and more attentive and skilled in the effectiveness of their own business written communications.

Education Update

* Tax educators, please take note: AICPA Student Memberships will be available starting Fall 1997.

* Practitioners and educators, mark your calendars: The AICPA 1998 Biennial Tax Education Symposium will be held June 5 and 6, 1998, in Las Vegas.

Please watch for additional information in future columns.

Abbreviations Commonly Used in The Tax Adviser
TTA The Tax Adviser IR
aff'g affirming IRB
AFTR2d American Federal Tax Reports, second P.L.
 series (Research Institute of America) Regs. Sec.
Ann. IRS Announcement Rev. Proc.
CB Cumulative Bulletin Rev. Rul.
Cir. Court of Appeals rev'g
Cl. Ct. Claims Court RRA
COBRA Consolidated Omnibus Budget SBJPA
 Reconciliation Act of 1985 Sec.
Cong. Rec. Congressional Record
Ct. Fed. Cls. Court of Federal Claims
DC District Court S. Rep.
DRA Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 SSRA
ERISA Employee Retirement Income Sup. Ct.
 Security Act of 1974 TAM
ERTA Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 TAMRA,
Fed. Reg. Federal Register
F2d Federal Reports, second series TC
F3d Federal Reports, third series TC Memo
F Supp Federal Supplement TD
GCM General Counsel Memorandum TEFRA
HIPAA Health Insurance Portability and
 Accountability Act of 1996 TRA,
H. Rep. House Ways and Means Committee USTC
 Report

TTA Internal Revenue News Release
aff'g Internal Revenue Bulletin
AFTR2d Public Law
 Treasury Regulation
Ann. Revenue Procedure
CB Revenue Ruling
Cir. reversing
Cl. Ct. Revenue Reconciliation Act of 1993
COBRA Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996
 Section (refers to the Internal
Cong. Rec. Revenue Code of 1986 unless
Ct. Fed. Cls otherwise indicated)
DC Senate Finance Committee Report
DRA Subchapter S Revision Act of 1982
ERISA Supreme Court
 Technical Advice Memorandum
ERTA Technical and Miscellaneous
Fed. Reg. Revenue Act of 1988
F2d Tax Court (regular decision)
F3d Tax Court (memorandum decision)
F Supp Treasury Decision
GCM Tax Equity and Fiscal
HIPAA Responsibility Act of 1982
 Tax Reform Act of 1986
H. Rep. United States Tax Cases
 (Commerce Clearing House)




Editor's note: Mr. Porter chairs the AICPA Tax Division Tax Education Committee. Professor Bradwick is a committee member.

If you would like additional information about this article, contact Mr. Porter at (304) 522-2553 or jporter@portercpa.com, or Professor Bradwick at (412) 357-5753 or Bradwick@Grove.IUP.EDU.
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Author:Porter, Jeffrey A.
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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