Earlier this week, I met with a new client, who I understand, has spent years concerned that things “aren’t quite right” with his business’ financials. He’s been afraid to ask basic questions, for fear that doing so will “hurt the feelings” of or “offend” his long-time bookkeeper.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story. Just today, I got another call. This case appears to be a significant fraud loss – my client’s losses are at the hands of a woman she implicitly trusted. For the first time in her business’ existence, she was headed to the bank to obtain statements and cancelled check images she had never thought to look at.
A few years ago, a prominent City Councilor called to get my input on the budget and other financial information being presented to him. He was terrified of asking questions during a council meeting for fear of embarrassing himself, admitting that he often voted with the rest, “hoping he was doing the right thing.”
Why is the “unknowing” business owner or manager or public official a recurring theme in my forensic accounting practice?
I’m no psychologist, but in more than a decade as a forensic accountant I have come to recognize that this theme stems from a few commonly-held fears that many of my clients have revealed when they say things like:
- “I’m just no good at numbers, I don’t want to ask questions and appear foolish.”
- “If my trusted accountant or bookkeeper leaves because I offend him or her with my inquiries, what will happen to my business? How will we survive without them?”
- “What if something IS wrong? Facing something that terrible would make me feel like an idiot that I let it go on. I would rather not know.”
- “I’m just so busy, I hired my accountant(s) to handle this for me. I don’t have time to worry about it.”
If you find yourself in a similar frame of mind, there is help. Simple steps you can take. During this holiday season, as we think about gifts for our family, friends, and colleagues, give yourself and your organization a gift too - the gift of knowing. Give your business the gift of gaining an understanding about your organization’s financial health.
Here’s how you can get started:
1. Regular Financial Reports
A financially healthy organization is able to produce financial reports with a simple click of a button. One of the biggest red flags of fraud is the lack of timely or accurate financial reports. At the minimum, ask for regular balance sheet, income statement, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and check register reports.
2. Practice Asking Questions and Gaining Access
The perception of detection is often a big deterrent to fraud. This perception starts when you ask questions. But you can’t stop there. Fraudsters are the most believable people I’ve ever met. They have an answer for everything. Questions must be combined with a request for relevant documentation.
Pick a few checks from the check register report and ask for the backup documentation supporting those expenditures. Don’t understand why a loan account balance on the balance sheet is so high? Ask for the supporting loan statement.
When you practice asking questions and requiring documents be provided to support your answers, fears about how others perceive you will dissipate, handing your power back to you, squarely where it belongs.
3. Ask for Help
Do my suggestions still strike terror in your heart? Then, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Inquire about the services of a trusted CPA or forensic accountant who can be your surrogate. This doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money. In a matter of a few hours for most business or nonprofit organizations, these professionals will know what questions to ask, what documents to review, and assess areas of your business where resources can be allocated, if necessary (e.g. increased internal controls, review of source documents to verify income is being deposited and funds aren’t being fraudulent disbursed, mitigation of risks going forward).
We all have to start somewhere, but starting is the key. Giving yourself the gift of knowledge this holiday season will give you a healthier, stronger and more stable organization in the New Year.