Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Do You Have Effective Internal Financial Controls in Your Business?

One of the very first private consulting jobs that I took on, several years ago was for a well-established company in the Midwest.  Day-to-day management of the company fell to the owner’s wife when he suddenly passed away. Since she was new to the daily operations, she began to scrutinize the financial information more carefully as a means of educating herself on the business financial condition. It didn’t take her too long to know that something wasn’t quite right but she couldn’t put a finger on the problem.

We worked together to analyze costs, analyze pricing and develop strategies for positioning the business to be put up for sale. Meantime, she shared with me that she had a concern that one of her employees was stealing from the company. So we turned our focus to the development of internal controls while we tried to identify whether or not her concern was valid. As it turned out, the tightening of internal controls caused the person in question to leave the company after over 20 years with the business. The owner, and her sons, were completely devastated to find out that the employee had been stealing from them consistently for many years. This employee was highly valued by the business and was considered almost like family after many years of service. The moral of the story is simply that no business is too small to institute effective internal financial controls.

How can you begin to develop controls? First you need to identify the areas that are high-risk in your business. High-risk areas may include: Cash receipts and disbursements, customer credit and collections (writing off bad debts), purchasing and storage of inventory, payroll (including worker’s compensation insurance fraud). Under no circumstances should an accountant, bookkeeper, or the Controller of the business be given check-signing authority. Fraud can easily be concealed if this person has authority to sign checks. The owner/manager should sign all checks. If there are multiple owners, at least two signatures should be required. Do not create a signature stamp that can be used in your absence.

Following are other recommendations:
• In a small company, if you cannot separate duties to provide a check and balance system, consider job-sharing through a cross-training arrangement.
• Require that employees who work in high risk areas take vacations. Pay attention as to whether employee life/styles seem to match what you may know about their salaries.
• Limit access to accounting records and year-end entries.
• Make surprise audits and inspections
• Discuss computer controls with your accountant or a computer security specialist
• Be sure that you pay attention to the legal aspects of internal controls. Be sure any controls that you put in place do not violate the privacy rights of employees or customers.

Article written by Susan Hoosier, Longview Small Business Development Center  To locate your local SBDC advisor please visit the SBDC web site

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