When business pros told Dr. John DeJoy that accounting graduates are lacking in communication skills, he refocused his course from math to memos.
Associate Professor of Accounting, Clarkson University, Capital Region Campus, Schenectady, NY
Postdoc in Accounting and Finance, PhD in Adult Education, MA in Theology, MS in Educational Administration, CFE, CPA, MBA, BBA in Accounting
“You are being audited.”
Those words make the average person cringe. But for professional auditors, the work can be exciting, challenging, and—as John DeJoy, MBA, PhD, learned during his time at the “Big Four” accounting firm Deloitte—surprisingly reliant on strong communication skills.
The truth is, DeJoy says, the stereotypical image of an accountant—someone sitting alone in a room working in spreadsheets—simply is not reflective of reality. In fact, there is almost daily interaction with clients, as problems are worked through and solved. And, as an associate professor of accounting at Clarkson University in Schenectady, New York, DeJoy has found that learning to navigate this level of communication is not part of the equation in many accounting courses.
DeJoy’s concerns were confirmed when he asked a friend, who is director of audits for a regional public accounting firm, what skills graduates lack when entering the workforce. “I didn’t even get the question out before he said, ‘Writing! They can’t write a memo and communicate after doing their work.’ It was like he was waiting 30 years for a professor to ask him that,” says DeJoy.
Today, in his online Advanced Auditing and Research class, DeJoy makes sure not only that his students can handle the math and the research but that they can also explain their evidence and resultant recommendations to others. To that end, he has created a “structured dialogue” exercise that pushes them to think, grow, and expand on their foundational knowledge of accounting.
Accounting traditionally focuses on numbers, not words
For MBA students to become highly functional public accountants, they must do more than know the math—they must be able to explain their findings to others. Unfortunately, writing and other communication skills take a back seat to number crunching in most accounting programs and courses.
“The facts are all given. You read a chapter about how to do [a calculation]. You [plug in this number], divide this by this, and you get $50,000,” he says. “We don’t answer any other questions. We don’t ask, ‘What are you going to do with $50K—and how will you communicate this to the client?’ or ‘What if the client was expecting $75K—how will you work through that?’ None of that happens in a traditional accounting classroom.”
Engage students in structured dialogue
DeJoy layers a number of skill-development areas into his teaching on top of the typical course content. High on the list are communicating, making informed decisions, giving and receiving feedback in a positive way, and being tolerant of ambiguity. This all comes together in a structured dialogue assignment that DeJoy has created for his online course.
Students begin by reading a case study and writing a research-based memo with recommendations for addressing the problems presented therein. These recommendations are posted to the class online discussion forum. The dialogue begins when each student critiques three classmates’ memos, stating (constructively and professionally) what they disagree with and why. By the end of that week, each student must post a rebuttal to each challenge, defending their position—or explaining a change in their position based on persuasive challenging evidence.
“A lot of auditing is nuance, where you’re doing estimates, or you have to choose between two different principles. [This memo assignment] helps you sort through the issues, think about them, and land on one side or the other—and also support why you chose the side you did.”— John DeJoy, MBA, PhD
Course: AC 613 Advanced Auditing and Research
Course description: This course is an advanced case and research-oriented study of topics in Auditing. Through a series of cases and related research, students will engage in the practice of auditing using real-world situations as the foundation for technical and theoretical discussions of issues facing the contemporary auditor. Cases will be chosen to reflect current and emerging topics in the practice of public accounting, financial auditing, fraud investigation, and forensic accounting. Auditing communications tools and software-based audit techniques will also be emphasized.
See resources shared by John DeJoy, MBA, PhDSee materials
DeJoy’s structured dialogue lesson
At the start of each week, DeJoy has each student read a different case study and post their research-based recommendations about it in memo form on the online discussion board used by his class. By Wednesday at midnight, students have to challenge at least three other students on their positions. This involves selecting specific parts of the recommendations and stating why they disagree with each one.
By midnight on Friday, students have to write and post a rebuttal to their peers’ challenges. “It makes the person who posted on Monday have to really think about the challenges posed to them,” says DeJoy. “This enhances their maturity and ability to respond to someone criticizing them. The student may say, ‘Well, I did look at that rule initially, but I didn’t think it applied to the topic.’ When they realize they did do the work of looking that up, but they didn’t include the details in their memo, that realization makes their future writing stronger.”
All of this back-and-forth happens quickly—there are only 48 hours between the challenges and rebuttals— so students must think on their feet, just as they will have to in the work world. Initially, this structured dialogue is a stretch for students, because it is unlike anything in any of their other accounting courses. “I am preparing them to be an effective member of the audit team on day one in their new job,” he explains. “By forcing them to do research and make decisions during my course, they will be ready to do the same when their supervisor asks. This is contrasted with students who were never asked to research or defend their positions in college. They will have the deer-in-the-headlights look when their work supervisor asks them to do that for the first time.
“For the first three weeks, I am their least favorite professor, because it’s very unsettling for them. But I’d rather have them be unsettled in my class than at work [in the outside world].”
2 Ways to Gain Buy-In
Here are two ways that DeJoy encourages accounting students to embrace the idea of focusing on writing in addition to math:
Share the “why” of the lesson
DeJoy tells students that he understands employers’ pain points because he entered the workforce with little practice in communication. When he started working at Deloitte and he was told that he had to talk to a client, it was an eye-opener—he had to pivot quickly to meet expectations. He tells his students that he wants to prepare them well, so they do not have the same rude awakening at work. “There’s all these nuances that you’re totally unprepared for if all you do is a problem at the end of a chapter,” he explains.
ID the skills they already have
Not all students will take to the approach at first. One semester, DeJoy’s class included a student with four years of accounting who was co-captain of a Division 1 basketball team. He thought she would do extremely well, as she was accustomed to rigor, leadership, and playing as part of a team. So he was surprised when he saw her struggling to understand his approach. “She didn’t realize she already had skills that could transfer to my course,” he says. “I met with her in my office several times and discussed with her what she knew well—leading a basketball team—and then pointed to the necessary skill set in doing that, and how it could be applied to my class and to the auditing profession.” After completing the course, she landed a plum role at a top investment bank, and her progress still serves as a success story for him today.
Here are some tips DeJoy uses to help his students go from reticent to communicative:
Use high-quality cases and questions
DeJoy uses the well-known Trueblood Case Studies from Deloitte as the basis for his student work. Students have to analyze the case, do the research, and write up their results. And DeJoy also develops his own set of questions designed to spark interest and thought. “Good questions motivate dialogue or give you something juicy to talk about,” he says. “[They] think about the case and consider facets they may not have thought of. Then they do in-depth research into the FASB Codification to respond to the questions, the gist of which are: How should the auditor advise the client on this difficult issue? Then they write their memo as if they are the auditor and they are writing to their audit supervisor telling the supervisor about the research, the answers, and the recommended course of action.” This raises the (fictional) stakes and better represents their future reality as professional auditors.
Put communication skills on the rubric
When viewing students’ challenges to each other’s work, DeJoy says he not only looks for “right” or “wrong” (in terms of accounting recommendations) but also assesses how his students are developing their communication skill set. “I say, ‘Forget that you are in the classroom. Pretend that you are now an auditor. I expect professional work and communication done on time,’” he says. In fact, he grades them on how well they write, how professionally they respond, and whether they respond on time. “It’s amazing how professional they are,” says DeJoy. “Obviously they know I’m watching them, but they are very polite. And they don’t just chitchat or do it all the night before.”
“I want students to get used to making decisions every week, so by the third or fourth week, they know what to expect. For the first three weeks, I am their least favorite professor, because it’s very unsettling for them. But I’d rather have them be unsettled in my class than at work [in the outside world].”— John DeJoy, MBA, PhD
Remove yourself from (most of) the equation
DeJoy focuses on peer-to-peer learning: He sets up the environment, provides the assignment, and then takes a back seat. In fact, DeJoy prefers to remain quiet as students engage in challenges and rebuttals online.
“I tend not to write in the discussion too much, because when you’re the professor and you say something, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, the professor has spoken,’ and no one says anything after that. It almost shuts down dialogue,” he says. “I usually wait until the dialogue is cranking, and if I do speak, I view it as setting up the bumpers in a bowling alley, so the ball doesn’t go in the gutter.” For example, if he finds a student going “too far afield” with their answer, he might say, “Hey, I see that you wrote this and this. Can you also consider this?” Adds DeJoy: “I try to reel them back into the general middle of the road—or correct them if they have a misunderstanding of the topic.”
Be patient with the process
Almost like clockwork, DeJoy says his students shift from being skeptical and apprehensive to fully embracing the assignment. “They go from ‘I don’t know what to do’ to ‘Hey, my memos are getting better; I’m learning and getting into a groove. It’s not as bad as I thought.’ Then, near the end of the 10 weeks, they are excited and can’t wait to post on Mondays,” DeJoy says.
“I love the transformation—and I love pointing it out to them!” he adds. “They are usually appreciative and say they feel very well prepared for the auditing profession. Hearing this makes all of the effort worth it.”