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You’re busy working on a project and the phone rings. You get back to work, but your cell phone’s text alert beeps. Then your email alert sounds, a neighbor knocks on the front door, your child demands his juice and cookies, then your phone rings once again. Just like that, the quality of your project could be compromised.
Imagine how this plays out in the world of tax accounting. Phones ring. Co-workers walk by and begin discussing the football game that happened last weekend. Email alerts sound and replies are sent. It’s called task interruption, and Harbert College Associate Professor of Accountancy James Long examined its impact on tax accountants’ judgment in a study coauthored with K. Asli Basoglu from the University of Delaware. The paper, “The Impact of Task Interruption on Tax Accountants’ Professional Judgment,” was recently accepted for publication in Accounting, Organizations and Society, an elite journal represented on the Financial Times’ Top 45 list, according to School of Accountancy Director Jennifer Mueller.
“The takeaway is that when tax professionals were highly committed to helping clients save on their taxes, task interruption compromised their professional judgment,” Long (pictured at right) said. Long and Basoglu provided evidence that task interruption affects judgment by exacerbating “motivated reasoning.” Interrupted tax professionals worked harder to justify an aggressive tax position, interpreting evidence in support of the aggressive tax position favorably, while discounting evidence that undermined the aggressive tax position – ultimately convincing themselves that they have a stronger argument for their desired position than they actually do.
“They actually become overconfident in the defensibility of the aggressive tax position, and they underestimate the risk that the IRS could challenge and disallow the aggressive tax position,” stated Long. “Therefore, they are more likely to recommend aggressive tax positions to clients, while failing to accurately communicate just how risky these tax positions are. This can cause their clients to take tax positions that are misaligned with their risk preferences, and may ultimately cost them penalties and interest.”
In addition, Long and Basoglu found that task interruption reduced tax professionals’ performance on a simple interrupting task. This suggests that the cost of task interruption may outweigh its benefit, at least in contexts similar to those explored in the study. Long points out that “individuals generally initiate or allow task interruptions because they believe the interrupting task has a higher priority than the interrupted task; however, they may reconsider when they factor in the cost of reduced performance on both the interrupting and interrupted tasks.”
According to Long, the study is the “initial experimental work on this topic in the accounting domain,” and future research will explore how task interruptions might affect other accounting-related judgments and task performance. “Ultimately, we want to see whether our results generalize to other contexts,” he added. “In addition, we would like to explore ways to mitigate this issue. Since interruptions are not going away and are unavoidable in many instances, can we develop coping strategies to help individuals overcome the negative impacts of task interruption?”