Pity the poor auditors

by Malcolm Simister

Being an auditor can be a dismal experience. I know because I spent eight years of my career as one and more than once wondered whether I was doing anything worthwhile.

Unless there is something amiss, hardly anyone gives the auditor’s report to the shareholders in annual reports more than a glance, especially as their wording is so similar from year-to-year and between different companies. So long as the magic words ‘true and fair view’ appear (which means the accounts are ‘right’, which almost all are), why read more?

Of course, audit reports, even in their relatively new lengthened form, barely indicate the work that has gone into being able to issue them. The nature of auditing is that its successes in pulling clients into line are confidential and go unremarked but any mistakes can be paraded for all the world to see and professional reputations can be trashed.

Further, because auditors have professional indemnity insurance, they are often drawn into legal cases in which they are only indirectly involved in the alleged misdemeanour. If in doubt, sue the auditors.

It’s not as if auditors are well paid compared with other professionals, given the expertise required and the risks they take. Clients often view the annual audit as a not-very-value-adding cost resulting in continual pressure on fees. So, auditors’ risk/return relationship isn’t great, comparatively.

So, why do people become auditors? For many in the audit team, especially the young ones who do most of the ‘hack work’, it’s a path to becoming a Chartered Accountant at someone else’s expense before moving on to other things, such as better paid jobs in commerce, industry or consulting. A few stay the course and become audit partners, when the pay is better and where ultimate responsibility lies. But why? One audit partner at a Big 4 firm who had taken an unusual path to becoming a partner by spending a few years as an accountant in industry before returning to the audit fold, told me he reckoned that auditing is a cushy way to earn a decent living.

Cushy maybe, but I never found auditing satisfying; merely checking other people’s work isn’t creative (using the word in its proper sense). I coped because of the challenge of tight deadlines, juggling three audits at once and, in the UK, the investigation and insolvency work that came along between audits. True, the social side could be good and I learned much about human nature but I found the auditing itself boring.

So, next time a bright, young thing turns up to ask you the same questions that other bright young things have asked you for the last several years, show some pity and have a laugh with them. They could use it – and perhaps you could too.

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