It’s worth it

This week, well actually almost this entire month, has been trying to overcome bad advice and management practice which was provided to a client.  I would love nothing more than to share names, opinions, and actions which got this entity into the mess they are in but that won’t solve the problem.  It would make me feel a whole lot better though.

Last night, after spending another 7 hours trying to figure out how to take incorrect balances and make them right, while at the same time trying to write the letter which explains to them why they now owe new balances, I asked myself, “Is it truly worth it?”

And when I almost convince myself to really question what I am doing, I think about the poor accounting clerk at the unnamed management company who, several years ago, no doubt discovered that what was being done, was wrong.  This accountant, filled with the righteous fury of making accounting meaningful, marched up to the unnamed boss at the management company, and laid out the facts.

“We are wrong.” The intrepid accounting person said.

“You are fired.” Said the boss.

Shooting the messenger is so much a part of the game isn’t it?  When things are not going well, it is easier to get rid of the those who question the steps, who report the unpleasantness, than to deal with the problem.  For the people who don’t want to hear it, they get silence and are grateful.  The ones who sounded the warning likely become gun shy and possibly vow to never raise a concern again.  There mantra might become, “It’s just how they do it here.”  Without realizing that by mouthing the phrase, they too become caught in the trap of decay.

Let’s be clear.  I think that when you start to simply accept poor behavior you become part of the problem.  When you see your manager using the company car on weekends, the same week you were involved in a termination of an employee who borrowed a work hammer, and you are silent, you are part of the problem.  Excusing the behavior of the manager simply because she is manager means that the rot won’t end.

Wrong is wrong.  Oh don’t misunderstand, no one will thank you for taking the stand.  Not your boss, not your bosses boss.  If you are lucky, you keep your job but get stuck with the title SNITCH.   But maybe, just maybe, people will start acting a little more ethical, at least in your presence.  And maybe, just maybe, they will act a little more ethically all the time because frankly it is too much work always looking over their shoulder to see if you are watching.

To that accounting clerk who, years ago, noticed that their employer was doing something completely wrong and called them on it, I thank you.  I know you tried and you succeeded.  Perhaps not as quickly as you might have hoped long ago but you are being vindicated.

One journal entry at a time.

Is it worth it?  Yes.  Doing right by people isn’t a zero sum game, it is the easiest way to live.  And like any questing knight, when you see people not wanting to correct a mistake, don’t be afraid to call them out.  Do it for the sake of the game, not because you expect an atta’ boy (or girl).  The greatest rewards in life are from within, when you can lie your head on the pillow and say, “Thank you, me, for a job well done.”

What did I say?

I guess I stepped in it today.

On my other blog for CORE, I wrote today about independence, you know that little section of rules which constrain the CPA from essentially reporting on their own work.

  • Yes, I know that it is done;
  • Yes, I know it is done all the time;
  • Yes, it is a literal interpretation;
  • No, I don’t think you should try and paper it over.

Two reports require the CPA to be independent of the client and management: Audit and Review.  No one is forcing the CPA firm to perform an audit or a review.  If you want to be part of management, I say GO FOR IT!  Help management get their act together.  Help them adjust their books and, more importantly, know when they need to debit this and credit that.  Help them, but don’t come back and then claim your independence isn’t impaired.

Impairment of independence isn’t just a factual matter.  Yes, you can create lots of paper which says that Ms. Whatshername, the a/p clerk, understands what you are doing on her behalf and she is ok with you making that journal entry for her.  But when you are brought in to re-enter the entire accounts payable because Ms. Whatshername didn’t enter anything and the controller was fired so there is no one to check your work… don’t push your luck.

The appearance of impairment is even more important for those reviews and audits.  You are dealing with the integrity of the profession when you ignore what some other person might think about your independence, or lack of it.  If it looks to an innocent person that you are doing the work of management, well, guess what?  You are.

To paraphrase a letter which went from an association to the owners of a condominium:

  • Management way back when got it wrong
  • New management starting in 20XX got it even more wrong
  • New management denied their work was wrong consistently from then until now
  • New management denied it was wrong even after being beat over the head with it
  • Board hired independent CPA to redo management’s work
  • Independent CPA recalculated the numbers, resulting in a major change
  • The CPA says their work is correct
  • And, you can rely upon the CPA for this because they are trustworthy

Sorry, but that wonderful letter praising the CPA now means the CPA probably is no longer independent as to the financial statement audit.

Their work was awesome.  Totally correct.  Nailed it to within $0.02 for every owner.  Told the attorney and the board they were right and said so in a letter to the owners.  they were worth every dime they were paid to fix the mess.

But their independence is now impaired.  There is no one, not management, not the board, definitely not the attorney, who is going to take responsibility for the CPA’s work.  The CPA owns it.  They said so.  Under the rules, both of the AICPA and common sense, they are no longer independent of the client.

No independence no audit.

I get it, it is my interpretation.  Well… Not really.  It is 20 odd years of practicing in this area and reading hundreds of ethics interpretations.  It is having to struggle with deciding when we cross a line and are no longer looked at by Tommy Banker or Amanda Bonding Agent as separate from management.  When the question is, “Are you getting paid to help management or to report on them?”; it does become a little more clear.

Attest firms MUST err on the side of caution.  The big 4 don’t, the next 8 don’t.  Their failures don’t give the rest of us license to slide down that wonderful chute into impairment hell.  Take the road less traveled but best for your client.  Have integrity to admit your lack of independence when it exists.

Make the right call.  Help management or report on them.  If you can’t tell the difference, well, you probably shouldn’t be playing this game.

 

An Open Letter to Certain Community Management Companies

Dear Community Management Company,

In response to the emails we have been receiving, please allow me to once again point out to you certain truths regarding the relationship between the auditor, the board, you as management and the owners.  This is a very important point to understand and can save you from performing an inordinate amount of rework, recriminations, general ill-feelings and time wasted writing pointless emails to me about how your feelings are hurt.

First, please understand that we are performing an audit of the financial statements prepared by management on behalf of the readers of that financial statement – i.e. current and prospective owners.  We are engaged to perform the audit by the board of directors who are elected by the owners’ within the association.  Our audit is on the financial statements prepared by you, as management.

It has likely not slipped by you that you, as management, are not included in the chain of authority.  We are engaged to audit your work.  The people who hire us, as part of their fiduciary responsibility, verify that we are independent of management.  That means we do not work for you, are not paid by you, and are not responsible to you.  We are, in fact, completely independent of you.

Auditor independence is an ethics requirement.  Auditor independence means that we are not involved in any manner with the people or companies we are auditing.  One step that we at C.O.R.E. take is to verify, prior to the start of any engagement: be it audit, review, consulting or other, that the work we are being asked to do does not put us in a position where a reasonable person might conclude that our work could be compromised because of some other relationship.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that we cannot perform consulting or even management services.  We can even elect to perform certain services on behalf of management.  As a matter of fact, given the, shall we say, ethically challenged behaviors we have witnessed of late, we are seriously contemplating offering association management services.  The owners have the right to have someone looking out for their best interest and we think we are a superior choice for the right board and association.

What we could not do, is perform an independent audit of that association for which we are also performing management services.  THAT, is a conflict of interest.  The board and owners deserve to have someone independently examine our work to ensure we comply, not only with GAAP, but with basic common-sense internal control.  The obvious things like getting board approval for writing yourself a check in excess of your contract.  And the not so obvious things like performing and paying yourself for work that the board authorized another contractor to do.

Being able to offer a superior service to what you are offering is not a conflict of interest.  It is competition.  Modern capitalism encourages those who can offer a superior service at a reasonable price to put inferior businesses in that marketplace – OUT OF BUSINESS.  Walmart put tens of thousands of small time corner drug stores out of business and there was never a conflict of interest – there was just good old fashioned competition.

But you are correct, we could, in theory, leverage our position as the independent auditor to point out your significant internal control weaknesses over your clients’ money to suggest they hire us instead.  But if you were to think about it you would realize that would create a conflict of interest.  I cannot audit someone with the intention of going to work for them in another capacity because, you guessed it, there are ethics rules against it.  And we take our ethical responsibility seriously.  You do not want to even hint otherwise.

No, I do not owe you an explanation for a report to the board on your material weaknesses over internal control.  No, I am not obligated to help you fix your accounting errors.  No, I don’t have to ignore your failure to follow ethical business practices.  And, finally, no, I don’t have to communicate with you directly.  Unless you are ready to pay my rather hefty consulting fees.  Which, by the way, I couldn’t take, because it would cause a conflict.  Elegant, isn’t it?

Competing with you for management services is not a conflict of interest my dear management company friends.  Making journal entries to paper over your accounting errors 12 months after the fact possibly is.  Perhaps other auditor’s don’t see the irony, but make no mistake, we do.

Because if a board ever questioned your logic, they would wonder why they have to pay three times:

  • Once for you to get it wrong in the first place
  • Once for the auditor to make adjustments to fix your error
  • and you the second time to post the journal entries to the accounting system you control and shouldn’t have gotten wrong to begin with

Please, management, remember that the auditor does not work for you.  We are ok if you don’t want to refer us to your boards – they will find us anyhow.  We are even OK if you want to form a CPA firm to perform audits in competition with us.  We actually encourage it – after all –

you might learn something.

And for those management companies who take their responsibilities seriously, we would like to work with your boards in auditing you.  We appreciate that are open to the fact that sometimes things go wrong and you want to get it right.  We are thankful that you are open to constructive criticism and are willing to evaluate how our thoughts on effective internal controls might work better for you.  And we are happy to refer our audit clients to you.  Not because we are friends or you give us a kick-back but because you have your clients’ interest in mind and that makes our job just a little bit easier.  So thank you and we look forward to auditing you.

Have a great day.

Take one for the team?

As a follow up to my post the other day I wanted to add a few things which I have pondered since I wrote.

One of the main reasons we are not “part of the team” is that we understand that “team” is typically a one way street.  It is an effort on behalf of a certain party to gain our cooperation in not holding them accountable.  Our independence is seen as a problem and the easiest way to overcome it is to hoist the flag of our mutual interest so that we feel uncomfortable addressing our “team mates” weaknesses.  After all, team mates cover for each other, one person’s strength is used to offset another’s weakness, right?

We learned this lesson long ago in auditor school.  Also known as the University of Adversity.  “The Team”, in these instances, only exists to protect one party.  How can I say this?

Is it really a team effort when someone in management knows a fact and fails to bring it to our attention?  When management hides facts from the auditor in the hopes we won’t find out?  “We are a team but I am under no obligation to give you what you need to do your job.”  This isn’t what team mates do.

Is it really a team effort when you say, “I know I have an obligation to take a step but frankly it isn’t important and you can just trust me.”  Team mates hold each other accountable.  I will trust you when you show you can be trusted, why should it be an obligation of “Team work”?  You create a one way street of loyalty wherein you expect me to help you be successful but you have no obligation to help me.  Hardly team spirit.

Is it a duty of a team member to turn a blind eye to sloth and laziness?  Can you imagine a ball club saying, “Yeah, that Brady.  Never shows up to practice, can’t block worth a damn but meh, he is part of the team so I guess it is ok that he is starting Tackle.”  You believe you can forgo your “A” game and it is everyone else’s responsibility to pick up the slack?

Ignore for the moment an auditor’s ethical responsibility.  Let’s say that we could be part of the team.  Don’t you think, team mate of ours, that part of your belonging to the “TEAM” demands that you give your best to the shared result?  That if our part is to help you fix your errors, your part is to identify them?  That when you know a material fact, you should tell us so we can be successful?

But that isn’t the sort of team you want.  You want the team that feels obligated to commit extra to cover for your inadequacies.  You are the lunch buddy who orders the filet mignon while everyone else orders a salad and then says that the team should split the bill evenly.  No one deserves to be part of THAT team.

So no, auditors are not part of the team.  We are not here to be popular and we are not here to sweep poor behavior under the rug.  We took our “oath of office” to protect owners from management.  We actually kinda like the job, even if it upsets certain people.

If you want me to be part of the team, pay my consulting rates.  I will walk away from auditing on behalf of your owners.  I will help you fix your obvious deficiencies in ethics and business practice.  I will even endeavor to fix those that are not so obvious.  Trust me, “team mate”, you won’t like accountability this way either, but you can at least say we are on the same “Team.”