10 Steps to Make Work Papers Sparkle

By Charles Hall | Accounting and Auditing

May 22

In this post, I provide ten steps to make work papers sparkle.

Have you ever been insulted by a work paper review note?

Your tickmarks look like something created by my child.

Rather than providing guidance, the comment feels like an assault.

Or maybe you are the reviewer–you stare at a work paper for several minutes–and you’re thinking, “what the heck is this?” Your stomach tightens and you say out loud, “I don’t have time for this.”

There are ways to create greater clarity in your work papers.

Make Work Papers Sparkle

Make Work Papers Sparkle

Here are ten steps to make your work papers sparkle.

  1. Timely review work papers. The longer the in-charge waits to review work papers, the harder it is for the staff person to remember what they did and, if needed, to make corrections. Also, consider that the staff person may be reassigned to another job. Therefore, he may not be available to clear the review notes.
  2. Communicate the work paper’s purpose.

a.  An unclear work paper is like a stone wall. It blocks communication.

b.  State the purpose of the work paper; for example:

Purpose of Work Paper – To search for unrecorded liabilities as of December 31, 2018. Payments greater than $30,000 made from January 1, 2019, through March 5, 2019, were examined for potential inclusion in accounts payable.

Or:

Purpose of Work Paper – To provide a detail of accounts receivable that agrees with the trial balance; all amounts greater than $20,000 agreed to subsequent receipt.

If the person creating the work paper can’t state the purpose, then maybe there is none. It’s possible that the staff person is trying to copy a work paper from the prior year that (also) had no purpose.

Click Purpose Notation Explanation for brief audio comment.

c.  All work papers should satisfy a part of the audit program (plan). No corresponding audit program step? Then the audit program should be updated to include the step—or maybe the work paper isn’t needed at all.

3.  The preparer should sign off on each work paper  (so it’s clear who created it).

4. Audit program steps should be signed off as the work is performed (not at the end of the audit–just before review). The audit program should drive the audit process—not the prior year work papers.

5.  Define tickmarks.

6.  Reference work papers. (If you are paperless, use electronic links.)

7.  Communicate the reason for each journal entry.

The following explanation would not be appropriate:

To adjust to actual.

A better explanation:

To reverse client-prepared journal entry 63 that was made to accrue the September 10, 2018, Carter Hardware invoice for $10,233.

8.   When in doubt, leave it out.

Far too many documents are placed in the audit file simply because the client provided them. Moreover, once the work paper makes its way into the file, auditors get “remove-a-phobia“–that dreaded sense that if the auditor removes the work paper, he may need it later.

If you place those unneeded documents in your audit file and do nothing with them, they may create potential legal issues. I can hear the attorney saying, “Mr. Hall, here is an invoice from your audit file that reflects fraud.”

Again, does the work paper have a purpose?

My suggestion for those in-limbo work papers: Place them in a “file 13” stack until you are completely done. Then–once done–destroy them. I place these work papers in a recycle bin at the bottom of my work paper tree. 

9.  Complete forms. Blanks should not appear in completed forms (use N/A where necessary).

10. Always be respectful in providing feedback to staff. It’s too easy to get frustrated and say or write things we shouldn’t. For instance, your audit team is more receptive to:

Consider providing additional detail for your tickmark: For instance–Agreed invoice to cleared check payee and dollar amount.

This goes over better than:

You failed to define your tickmark–again?

Last Remarks

What other ways do you make your work papers sparkle? Comment below.

You may also be interested in a related post: 7 Steps to Effectively Review Financial Statements. Also, see If It’s Not Documented, It’s Not Done.

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About the Author

Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses.He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events.Charles is the quality control partner for McNair, McLemore, Middlebrooks & Co. where he provides daily audit and accounting assistance to over 65 CPAs. In addition, he consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.

  • John McLeod says:

    Very good article. I can see where these points would be of use to those new to reviewing workpapers, as well as experienced in-charges who need a little refresher.

  • Charles B. Hall says:

    Thanks John. If only I could remember to do these things. I’ll keep trying.

  • armando balbin says:

    Comprehensive list, good

  • Gosh Christopher. You sound just like me. I have said this (about the N/A) many times, but few seem to concur.

  • Christopher L. Arsenault says:

    Thanks Charles. It seems like each point is something I come across every time I review an audit workpapers. In re: #9: If the risk assessment standards require audit programs to be tailored to each specific job then “N/A” should never appear in the audit program. Either the program needs to be revised to reflect the adjustment to the original risk assessment developed during planning or the step needs to be completed. If the step is not applicable why is it in the audit program?

  • Good points for any workpapers – not just audits. Nice, comprehensive list.

  • Thanks David. I appreciate the kind comments. Glad you liked the post.

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