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More attention to cultural differences would help auditors rebuild public trust

06 December 2010
 ‘Professional behaviour of auditors is influenced by national cultural differences. This means that it cannot be simply assumed that auditors will apply the international standards the same way all over the world’, states Olof Bik. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 December 2010.
‘Our human response to every crisis is to draw up more rules. My study, however, illustrates that rebuilding public trust does not come with more rules, but rather with increased awareness of the influence of cultural differences and other behavioural drivers affecting the actual application of the rules.’ Bik thinks that the international auditing firms should concentrate more on the local interpretation of international rules when managing their international networks, their local training programmes and their quality assurance procedures.

Confidential information

The auditing profession depends on mutual trust, communication, cooperation and at the same time a professionally sceptical attitude. Both towards their clients and within the audit teams themselves. Bik: ‘Auditors check the extent to which (financial) information or accounts give a true and fair view of reality. Checking this often requires access to confidential information. That leads to a professional relationship based on mutual trust. However, the way that relationship is defined varies by culture.’


More than any other profession, auditing has been able to capture its core values and behavioural principles in one single set of globally implemented standards. This is of course very important, in Bik’s opinion. ‘After all, multinationals and the global capital markets expect the same audit quality  all over the world.’ However, it are the local audit teams in the many different countries who actually apply the standards. It then becomes clear that the way that auditors apply these standards and arrive at an audit opinion is culturally determined, states Olof Bik. ‘The rules are culture-blind. They do not take cultural differences in the interpretation and application into account. One cannot simply assume that auditors will apply the international standards the same way all over the world. Behaviour, also that of auditors, is strongly influenced by cultural background’, according to Bik. Behaviour that is influenced the most by national cultural differences concerns the sharing of knowledge and the level of involvement of the accountant bearing final responsibility in the audit team.

Critical questions

Professional scepticism is crucial when conducting an audit. It is essential to ask clients challenging questions. Although that’s not always easy in Western cultures, in other cultures, for example in some Asian countries where loss of face must be prevented at all cost, it’s even more tricky. ‘Auditors in such cultures often find it harder to ask critical questions or seek confrontation because they are then implicitly questioning the integrity of the management.’ However, according to the international auditing standards, auditors are simply obliged to ask such questions, even in writing.

National cultural differences

‘Western’ nations are also affected by national cultural differences. We don’t even need to go far from home to find some examples. ‘In the Netherlands, for example, we like to focus on the intention or the principle of the rules and how they are monitored, But auditors in Germany, our nearest neighbour, prefer to work with detailed procedures and guidelines’, explains Bik. This is particularly obvious in countries which are culturally less able to cope with uncertainty. They tend to use rules as something they can hold on to. ‘That, for example, affects the risk analysis and the preference for detailed as opposed to system-oriented audit activities.’

Rebuilding public trust

This is why Bik is not in favour of abandoning the international rules. What he would like to see is a dialogue on how the rules should be interpreted and applied in the local cultural settings. ‘Auditors and their supervisory bodies must become aware that more than one road leads to Rome without the intention of the rules necessarily being violated. Instead of the one size fits all approach, they should recognize that different approaches are possible in different cultures’. 

Local interpretation

The next step in rebuilding public trust in the auditing profession and improving audit quality is thus not creating more and new rules. ‘The natural response after every crisis is to draw up more rules. My thesis illustrates that that’s exactly where the solution does not lie’, according to Bik. He would prefer to see that international management, local training programmes and quality assurance systems take the local interpretation of globally agreed rules into account. ‘And then the same would apply to auditing as for every multinational company – the right behaviour is mainly driven by cultural differences and other behavioural factors.’

Curriculum vitae

Olof P.G. Bik (Hazerswoude, 1974) studied Accountancy at the NIvRA-Nyenrode University. He will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. His supervisors were Prof. J.A. van Manen and Prof. S.J. Magala. His thesis is entitled ‘The Behavior of Assurance Professionals – A Cross-cultural Perspective.’ Bik is leading the Behavioral & Cultural Governance practices within Business Assurance Services at PwC.

Note for the press

More information: Olof Bik, tel. 088 79 25 168, e-mail: o.p.g.bik 
Last modified:13 March 2020 01.59 a.m.
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