The Effects of Situated Client Identity and Professional Identity Salience on Auditor Judgments
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Recent accounting research suggests that auditor identification or familiarity with their clients may be an additional threat to auditor independence, which may be mitigated by a strong professional identity (King 2002; Bamber and Iyer 2007). However, social identity theory suggests that a strong professional identity will only be effective if it is highly salient and thus readily activated. Yet, professional identity salience is argued to have diminished in recent years (Warren and Alzola 2009). I examine if the level of professional identity salience moderates the positive association between auditor agreement with the client and client identity strength, or the negative association between auditor agreement with the client and professional identity strength. I address these research questions using two experiments completed by experienced professional auditors. In the first experiment with an ambiguous audit judgment task, I examine client identity strength and professional identity salience at two levels each and measure professional identity strength. Results show that auditors with stronger client identities agree more with the client, but only when professional identity salience is not heightened. I do not find that auditors with stronger professional identities agree less with the client, even when professional identity salience is heightened. In the second experiment with an unambiguous audit judgment task, I examine client identity strength at two levels when professional identity salience is not heightened. Results are inconclusive as to whether auditors with strong client identities differ in their agreement with the client, relative to auditors with weak client identities. My research contributes to literature on auditor identification and independence by demonstrating the importance of professional identity salience, not just professional identity strength, on auditor judgments. I also show that threats to auditor objectivity can arise from client identity that develops even without a familiar client relationship.