Real Earnings Management: A Threat to Auditor Comfort?

Posted: 25 Jan 2014 Last revised: 3 Feb 2016

See all articles by Benjamin P. Commerford

Benjamin P. Commerford

University of Kentucky, Gatton

Dana R. Hermanson

Kennesaw State University - Department of Accounting

Richard W. Houston

University of Alabama

Michael F. Peters

University of Maryland

Date Written: February 2016


Real earnings management (REM) is an increasingly common method of manipulating financial results, yet little research examines auditors’ perceptions of and responses to REM. Using the auditor comfort framework (Pentland 1993; Carrington and Catasús 2007), we examine the extent to which REM impacts auditor comfort and how, in the presence of REM, auditors rely on comfort-building strategies in trying to move from a state of discomfort (i.e., fear of failing to identify misstatements) to comfort. Based on in-depth interviews of 20 experienced auditors, we find that auditors are aware of REM and often identify REM through formalized protocols that include analytical procedures, discussions with management, or their knowledge of the business. Formal audit procedures play a role when trying to address, “rationally,” the risk of REM, but we also find that auditors use emotive phrases and references to body senses related to discomfort, indicating that there also is an emotional component to dealing with REM (Guénin-Paracini, Malsch, and Paillé 2014). Most of the interviewees have concerns about REM (i.e., it threatens comfort), largely because they believe that it is indicative of management’s desire to meet short-term targets (i.e., poor management tone), and that it may signal the use of other, less acceptable earnings management methods (i.e., accruals-based earnings management) to meet those targets. Interviewees respond to the discomfort caused by REM in many ways, including engaging in discussions with the client, increasing skepticism, and altering audit procedures and risk assessments. Auditors may even go as far as resigning from an engagement because of REM. Our analysis reveals that REM is a significant source of auditor discomfort and that auditors use both their rationality and their emotions/body senses to identify and try to alleviate that discomfort.

Keywords: Real earnings management, accounting earnings management, auditor, management tone

Suggested Citation

Commerford, Benjamin P. and Hermanson, Dana R. and Houston, Richard W. and Peters, Michael F., Real Earnings Management: A Threat to Auditor Comfort? (February 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Benjamin P. Commerford (Contact Author)

University of Kentucky, Gatton ( email )

255 B&E Building
Lexington, KY
United States

Dana R. Hermanson

Kennesaw State University - Department of Accounting ( email )

1000 Chastain Road
Kennesaw, GA 30144
United States
770-423-6077 (Phone)
770-499-3420 (Fax)

Richard W. Houston

University of Alabama ( email )

Culverhouse School of Accountancy 310 Alston, Box 870220
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States
205-348-8392 (Phone)
205-348-8453 (Fax)

Michael F. Peters

University of Maryland ( email )

Department of Accounting Van Munching Hall
College Park, MD 20742-1815
United States
301-405-7118 (Phone)
301-405-0359 (Fax)

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