Preventing Financial Reporting Fraud: A Holistic View of the Attributions Made Following Potential Fraudulent Financial Reporting Events

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Virginia Tech

Constituents in the judicial process such as jurors and lawyers who often play a critical role in the aftermath of an alleged financial reporting fraud have largely been ignored in the accounting literature. Literature in psychology suggests that both laypeople and highly trained professionals frequently over-attribute causality of an observed behavior to the disposition of the person performing that behavior. In doing so, these individuals underestimate the power of situations and fail to recognize important environmental factors that lead to a particular behavior. Within the context of fraudulent financial reporting, there is little understanding of how jurors and lawyers initially perceive and react to fraudulent behavior. Consequently, it is possible jurors and lawyers who are asked to evaluate the causality of a suspected fraudulent event, are inaccurate in their assessment of the causality of that event.

This study addresses the question of whether or not the various constituents in the judicial process are biased in their attributions when evaluating causal factors related to financial reporting decisions. More specifically, it focuses on how individuals outside the profession of accounting, laymen jurors and corporate lawyers, make attributions when observing decisions related to fraudulent financial reporting, and whether or not these attributions differ from those made by corporate accountants. Further, after identifying differences in attributions, this study attempts to determine the causes of these differences; and whether recent changes in business culture have been effective in curbing financial reporting fraud.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a proliferation of high profile financial reporting frauds, and as a result, numerous changes have been made within the regulatory environment governing financial reporting. Many of these changes targeted overall business culture and a commitment to ethical financial reporting. By studying the attributions of corporate accountants we learn about their perceptions of the current environment and better understand their willingness to report something in a manner that would constitute financial reporting fraud.

Evidence demonstrates that laymen, corporate lawyers, and corporate accountants differ in their attributions and that laymen are typically more biased when observing individuals and their financial reporting decisions. Laymen are also shown to lack awareness of recent changes in the financial reporting environment, have unrealistic expectations of the likelihood accountants are willing to intentionally misreport something, and are not as good at identifying appropriate and inappropriate financial reporting behaviors. Results also suggest recent changes in business culture and governance around financial reporting have been effective in convincing corporate accountants that environmental factors should not lead to, and are not a viable excuse for, fraudulent financial reporting.

Financial Reporting Fraud, Business Culture, Attribution Theory, Correspondence Bias, Fundamental Attribution Error