When Shyam Gupta came back to the UK after a sabbatical doing voluntary work in Mongolia, his future didn’t look too bright. Gupta had previously worked in banking, and he wanted to return to this industry. The problem was he came back to the UK in 2012, a time when jobs in this field were being shed, not created. He had personal issues to contend with too, as a close family member had been diagnosed with cancer. And he was trying to readjust to life in the West after time on the steppes. “Everything was getting on top of me,” he says.
Looking around the ICAEW website, Gupta came across the Support Members Scheme. This scheme, which is unique among professional bodies, enables members to ask for advice from volunteers, all of whom are experienced ICAEW members trained to help with their problems.
“The idea of speaking to your professional peers who want to help their fellow members sounded amazing,” says Gupta. “And it was. The support member I spoke to was incredibly friendly, supportive, willing to listen and ready to point me in the right direction. He told me that my fees would be reduced and helped me get on courses to prepare for interviews and work on my CV. He couldn’t help with the family situation, but it was a great help to have someone to speak to about it.”
Support member Carol Warburton is in practice, so most of the queries she gets tend to be around regulatory areas. “Sometimes the problem is about a client,” she says. “The caller may be embarrassed to raise the issue directly with ICAEW. But we have that special dispensation that allows us to be a father confessor; we take the matter on board and the caller knows it will go no further.”
Being a support member is about having the confidence to listen to people, to reflect, consider and be ready with the tools we have
The confidence element is a crucial factor behind the scheme’s success, as support members are exempt from the duty that all other ICAEW departments have to report misconduct back to the Institute. “We provide a listening ear in total confidence to members in difficulty,” states Paul Burnard, chairman of the Support Members Scheme Steering Committee. “This is why I think of the scheme as the Institute’s Samaritans.”
ICAEW does receive some basic feedback on calls, as support members complete a standard form with brief details of the problem and the advice given. However, this is done on an anonymous basis, and is used to help identify the most common queries and ensure a level of quality control over the advice given.
Over the past year the most frequent subject of enquiries has been, like Gupta’s, about employment – or unemployment. The second most frequent issue (and the top of the list for several years before 2011) was complaints and disciplinary issues. When the Investigation Committee sends a letter to a member telling them that they might be the subject of an investigation, it refers them to the Support Members Scheme, which prompts many of these calls. “Unfortunately members often only contact us when they are about to appear before the committee,” says Burnard. “If you’re in trouble or think you may have a complaint made against you, you should call a support member as soon as possible.”
He cites an example where prompt action may have helped save a member’s career. “A member told me he had done something rather stupid. I told him his best bet was to come clean with his employer and with ICAEW, which he did. He ended up being disciplined, but it’s fairly certain that had a formal complaint been made he would have been struck off.”
In this case the advice was straightforward. However, often there are no simple answers to members’ problems. All support members interviewed for this article described themselves as a “signpost” rather than an oracle. “We can’t necessarily solve all the issues brought before us,” says Alan Radford, former partner at Bird Luckin and now a support member. “But we can try to provide added information and advice about who else to contact and how best the members can conduct themselves.”
Some queries come not from members but from their families. One of Radford’s callers was a daughter of a sole practitioner who had died, leaving payrolls and open files to be dealt with.
“The first thing I needed to establish was whether there was an alternative in place,” he says. “Since the answer was no, I asked what the family wanted to do. Did they want to sell the practice, or close it down and speak to the clients individually?” After talking it through, they decided to sell.
Other calls come from members in business. Rory O’Donnell had a query from a finance director who felt he was being bullied by his managing director to make the company’s finances look better than they were. “I’ve also had cases where people feel they are being treated unfairly by their boss and don’t know what to do,” he says.
He has also heard cries for help from partners. “One member was under pressure because he felt the senior partners were trying to squeeze him out. When I looked at this dispassionately I could understand why the senior partners might want him to go. He felt a sense of injustice as he was looking at the situation subjectively. I had to take an objective view.”
The advice O’Donnell gave was: if things were not working out, the member needed to ask whether he really wanted to continue in an environment where he was under pressure all the time. “Sometimes people want to hang on when the right thing to do is move on,” he says.
Radford thinks part of the skill of being a support member lies in seeing what the problem really is. “It’s difficult, as you are talking to somebody you have never met and you know nothing about,” he says. “Callers often launch straight into an issue, but you need to know the background and find out how the problem fits into this.”
Warburton finds the confidentiality promise helps callers open up. “Talking about their problems can be very cathartic for them,” she says. “Conversations can be intense or light, but we are ready for that. We’re not expected to be psychologists or analysts. We’re expected to have common sense and experience. Being a support member is about having the confidence to listen to people, to reflect, to consider, and be ready with the tools we have available to us.”
Gupta was so pleased with the advice he was given that he decided that once he was settled back in work he would become a support member himself, which he did in 2013.
“I feel being part of the scheme is an incredible opportunity and a way of giving something back to the Institute,” he says.
The Support Members Scheme celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The idea behind it is simple. Members facing any kind of problem can call support members directly using the contact information published on the scheme’s website. Or they can call a central number (or send a message to a central email address) to contact the scheme’s administrators.
If they take this route they are asked if they would prefer to speak to someone locally or from another region. If they are comfortable outlining their problem, their situation is matched with the expertise of a particular support member.
Any ICAEW member interested in becoming a support member starts off with a half-day induction session. This runs through case studies, the sorts of questions that may be asked, the other sources of help that are available – such as the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA) and Purple Legal (ICAEW’s member rewards legal partner) – and the kind of help ICAEW can offer its members.
Further training comes at an annual Support Members Scheme conference, at which attendance is mandatory at least once every two years. The conference programme features presentations from various ICAEW departments, such as Quality Assurance, Ethics Advisory and Professional Conduct, as well as a legal update. The conference also includes sessions on soft skills such as counselling and interviewing.