Accountants respond to the Expensify letter

When Expensify CEO David Barrett sent his now-controversial pro-Biden letter to the company’s 10 million-strong email list, it caused an uproar across the accounting profession — or as much of an uproar that can be caused in a profession known for cool heads and professional skepticism.

Most accountants reacted negatively to the letter, stating that Barrett had no right to force his political views on his customers and partners, and that it was inappropriate to do so. Some accountants, however, believe that it was brave of Barrett to state his position so boldly. Those who responded positively see the current effort to vote Trump out of office as more important than the "neutrality" of the profession or any other consideration.

Last week, commentator Blake Oliver made the point that Barrett did not consider the impact of his letter on the profession that his company partners with. Accountants don’t just pride themselves on neutrality — they depend on it, in order to provide service that is beyond reproach and entirely free of bias. This neutrality is important not just for keeping clients happy, but also so that any work the accountant does is beyond criticism.

However, some accountants take the view that even though it was a controversial move, Barrett was doing the right thing by clearly stating his moral position. Expensify is located in Portland, Oregon, the nexus of many current crises: the coronavirus pandemic, which surfaced virulently in the Pacific Northwest early in the year, and Black Lives Matter-related activity that turned violent in the city.

“We have a history of getting involved with complicated issues and trying to find a way to help,” Barrett told Accounting Today the day he sent the letter. “We try to stand by our values. We know we didn’t get here alone — we acknowledge systemic bias.”

Barrett is referring to two specific actions the company took this year. When schools closed across the country due to COVID-19, Expensify’s charitable foundation, Expensify.org, redirected its efforts from school lunches to reimbursing SNAP-program grocery purchases up to $50 per family through the Expensify app. And following the killing of George Floyd, Expensify changed its home page to declare its support for Black Lives Matter. After some inquiry from customers, Joanie Wang, director of marketing for the company, published this statement:

“We’re a team of individuals who are deeply dedicated to our values, and one of those values is that we believe in the equitable treatment of everyone regardless of race, gender, age, or sexual orientation," she said. "Our homepage is a reflection of us expressing those values and standing in solidarity with our BIPOC teammates and community members. It feels important that we not remain silent during this time.”

According to Barrett, Expensify had been engaging with BLM leaders in Portland, getting into the fray of what was happening in its city. He sees this work as adjacent to supporting his employees.

“We have a genuine desire to make the world a better place,” he said. “In a democracy, you have no choice but to participate. There’s no such thing as opting out. If companies aren’t taking an opinion, it's an endorsement of the status quo; or, they are too cowardly to do anything about it. Companies should stand up for the people that work there. I often think of that Edmund Burke quote: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”

Here are some reactions to Barrett’s letter from around the profession:

'I keep politics out of my business'
I was shocked by Barrett’s email, because for myself, I keep politics out of my business as I want to respect the opinion of others, and I don’t feel like it’s my place to influence my clients politically, especially as a trusted advisor. They rely on me heavily to make complex decisions. If I put my political influence on it, it puts me and the client in an awkward position, and I wouldn’t do that.

Also, my big pet peeve is email. I get so many, and I use a workflow app to triage and filter my messages. Why is my inbox being bothered by Expensify’s political opinion? I don’t subscribe to [political emails] on purpose.

Dawn Brolin, CEO, Powerful Accounting
'I was very proud of them'
I loved the Expensify email, but I don’t have any clients on the product, so it didn’t impact me in a negative way. I was very proud of them for standing up for what they believe is right and important. I also think this will help them get customers that will align more with their ideology and goals.

Nayo Carter-Gray, CEO, 1st Step Accounting
'I laughed'
I got the email and laughed. I do not believe tech companies should use their mailing lists to try and influence an election, regardless of my political leanings. We have not had clients come back wanting to switch, but I also think they just delete the majority of those types of emails and might not have read it.

— Liz Mason, CEO, High Rock Accounting and Rebel Rock Accounting
'I am looking for alternatives'
I cringed when I saw that email. It doesn’t matter which side I am on politically, I stay out of the fray publicly. I state facts based on tax plans and proposals and give my best expectation of the result. What David Barrett did was akin to telling your employees they are required to vote for a specific candidate, or else — which happens here in Florida every four years.

The result of the Expensify letter is the clients we have recommended that platform to may see it as a reflection on us. I have heard from one client, and they laughed it off. Luckily that was the entire extent of any backlash here. Needless to say, I am looking for alternatives to recommend to my clients.

Jay Kimelman, chief accounting officer, The Digital CPA, and co-founder, Bluewire Strategy
(Almost) no comment
Expensify has been an app partner to the American Institute of CPAs since 2016, and the institute’s preferred expense management app. CPA.com, the tech and for-profit arm of the Institute, had this to say:

"We know Expensify is addressing this with its customers."
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